These youth have some ideas on how to make their lives easier. Colorado lawmakers are considering their bills

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Students on the Colorado Youth Advisory Council listen to remote testimony from legislators on their draft bills.

Youth would be able to non-legally change their names at school under a proposed bill that is starting its journey through the Colorado State Capitol. Two other draft bills – one to study gender-affirming care and the other to address mental health staff shortages in schools — were among youth-proposed bills given the green light by a legislative committee Wednesday.

Since 2019, students from the Colorado Youth Advisory Council, representing state senate districts across the state, have presented bills before a legislative interim committee. Students ages 14 to 19 generate ideas and research policy solutions, while nonprofit leaders provide training on everything from policy process and research methods to logistics and public speaking. The committee reviews the work of the council and can recommend up to three pieces of legislation on issues affecting the state’s youth for the state legislature to consider during its next session.

The Youth Advisory Council Committee voted Wednesday to advance three of the six pieces of draft legislation proposed by youth. Two of them won’t have an easy journey as evidenced by significant grilling from Republican members of the committee and pushback from some “parents rights” advocates. Still, students were thrilled three of their top-priority bills were approved for further consideration.

“I think these bills have the potential to have an amazing impact on the youth of Colorado, and I’m looking forward to seeing them being introduced,” said Siddharth Nareddy, a Lafayette student who worked on a student loan relief bill for mental health counselors.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Student Meghan Taylor (left), and student Camryn Sample (right) listen to Dr. Jax Gonzalez, who works with LGBTQ+ youth, testify in support of students' bill that would allow students to use their preferred name in school at a hearing of the Colorado Youth Advisory Council Wednesday.
Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Students from Douglas County schools attend a committee meeting where students representing the state's senate districts on Colorado Youth Advisory Council present their bills on issues affecting youth in the state on Wednesday, Oct. 26.

Student Meghan Taylor said the two bills focusing on transgender youth tells those students “that they are important, that they are real and that they are loved and that they are supported and that they do have people that care for them.”

Legislators have adopted many youth-generated policies in the past. In the last legislative session, four proposals became laws, including bills on student discipline, substance use and eating disorders.

Here are more particulars about this year’s youth-generated bills:

Bill #1: Increase the number of licensed psychologists for youth struggling with their mental health

Nearly 40 percent of teens reported symptoms of depression (defined as experiencing feelings of sadness or hopelessness almost every day for at least 2 weeks) that prevented them from engaging in their usual activities, according to the 2021 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.

However, Colorado has a shortage of licensed school psychologists, according to educators and state statistics. Most districts have none – 124 out of 188 designated school districts. Another 31 districts had a student-to-psychologist ratio of over 1,000 students for every one licensed psychologist, according to research presented by students. The national recommendation is one psychologist for every 500 students.

Nareddy testified that the state has top psychology training programs but a quarter of graduates leave the state due to the high cost of living and low salaries.

The state already has some measures in place to address the problem, such as stipends to lower or eliminate application fees for licensure — but students say those don’t get to the root of the problem: the cost of tuition and student loans. The proposal increases student loan relief for mental health specialists who commit to working in the field in the state for at least three years.  Practicing in a district where no licensed school psychologists currently exist would be prioritized.

“We cannot ignore our communities calling for help,” Nareddy said.  

Students highlighted Kansas, which has a program to encourage people to move to rural counties in exchange for loan forgiveness up to a maximum of $15,000 over five years.

Two other proposals generated more discussion – and concern – but passed on a 3 to 2 vote to become draft legislation.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Student Siddharth Nareddy, representing Senate district 25, listens to a question from a lawmaker about his proposal for student loan relief for mental health counselors.

Bill #2: A way for transgender students to be called their preferred name at school

A proposed bill would create a system to allow non-legal name changes in school for students 12 and older, allowing schools to use a student’s preferred names on internal documents. Any outside documents would require a parent’s signature. 

While students see the matter as a safety issue for transgender and gender-diverse youth, Republican lawmakers pushed back on the idea.

“Do you think it’s a good example to set to keep things like this from parents?” Senator Janice Rich asked the bill’s presenter, 17-year-old Meghan Taylor of Manitou Springs.

Taylor responded that she thought it was.

“These name changes are preventing suicide,” she said, citing a study showing that when a student is able to have their name and chosen pronouns respected they are half as likely to take their own lives. She said at age 12, she had a friend who wanted to kill themselves because they couldn’t express who they really were.

Taylor said if a student lives in a house where parents don’t accept their child’s gender identity, “having a place such as a school where that person can feel that they are a human being and that they are who they are is vital to the life of anyone.”

Rich said a non-legal name change amounts to “lying” to parents.

Senator Janice Marchman, who is a teacher, said after accidently outing a transgender student by using their given name on the official roster, she learned that under state civil rights law, teachers are supposed to be using a student’s preferred name and pronoun. She said she supports codifying that right into law.

Representative Ron Weinberg disagreed.

“We’re trying to solve a problem with deceit,” he said, because parents won’t necessarily know their child is using a different name at school even if it’s not a legal name change. Parents’ approval is required in order to change a child’s name legally.

Bill #3: Addressing the lack of gender-affirming care in Colorado

Transgender and other students who identify outside the gender binary report a lack of acceptance and difficulty accessing gender-affirming care, youth testified. More than half of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, according to The Trevor Project’s 2022 national survey.

The number of Colorado adolescents seeking gender-affirming care (including the use of puberty blockers, hormonal, psychological and non-medical services) is increasing, and physicians say there is a lack of training statewide in the practice, especially in rural areas. Another legislative proposal calls for a state study of where gender affirming care is available in Colorado and why there is a lack of knowledgeable providers. It would also include studying the number of patients seeking gender-affirming care, the availability of insurance to cover such treatments, and would examine threats to gender-affirming health-care providers.

“Providers are being overwhelmed with patients and that is something we need to understand how to fix and that requires a study to know how to help them and the barriers that they are facing,” said COYAC student Mason Evans, who said his doctor didn’t know how to help him when he was 15. He received that gender-affirming care three years later.

“I struggled immensely,” he said. “I struggled every single day.”

Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Cate Preece, Meghan Taylor, and Camryn Sample (left to right), all teenagers on the Colorado Youth Advisory Council gather before presenting their legislative proposals to state lawmakers

The original bill the students proposed would have funded a grant program to train family planning clinics and health care centers in gender-affirming care, but students said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment wanted a study on the care first. 

Parent Erin Lee from northern Colorado asked the committee to reject all six bills.

“Parents like me are kept in the dark and bullied into going along with (gender) transition even when we know it’s not right for our children,” said Lee, who filed a lawsuit in May against the Poudre School District after her daughter allegedly attended a school meeting where a guest speaker introduced her to transgenderism and told her not to tell her parents.  “Please don’t perpetuate this bullying of teachers and parents to do what they know is wrong for some children. This kind of forced speech and forced transition of children will harm many.”

The youth-proposed bills that didn’t make the cut include one to create a resource bank for Asian American and Pacific Islander history education in public schools, expanded hygiene resources for youth in need, and a bill that would mandate that school districts inform parents about Colorado's gun-storage law. Those ideas may still find bill sponsors.

The students will continue to follow their bills through the legislative process this winter and all said it was a valuable experience.

“It was an opportunity to create solutions to the systemic issues that face our community,” Nareddy said. “It’s one thing to be working with local community-based initiatives to solve these issues but it’s a completely different thing to step into the policy sphere as a way to create tangible change.”