The 62 Arlington high-school students who will head to Richmond in March for participation in the 2018 Model General Assembly program got a head start Dec. 8, as they sat down with real-world legislators and picked up suggestions on how to build alliances in the state capital.
“We are taking 21 bills – our goal is to be ‘Richmond-ready,’” said Josué Rocha, a ninth-grader at H-B Woodlawn Secondary School, as he and other students gathered at Central Library for a session with state Sen. Barbara Favola; Dels. Patrick Hope, Rip Sullivan and Alfonso Lopez; and Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos.
It was the fourth year that the Arlington branch of the YMCA sponsored the pre-session gathering with elected officials, designed to provide the students with real-world feedback and advice.
“I was enormously impressed,” Sullivan (D-48th) said of the students and legislation they proposed. Sullivan and other lawmakers will convene in Richmond Jan. 10 for what is expected to be a 60-day session, then will turn the facilities over to students for the three-day Model General Assembly gathering.
This being Arlington, most of the proposed legislation came from a progressive-leaning slant, whether it be making Virginia a “sanctuary state” or enacting a tax on carbon-dioxide emissions.
(Among the more unusual proposals: Retaining Virginia’s death penalty but substituting a firing squad for lethal injection.)
Like Sullivan, the other elected officials came away dazzled by the students’ preparation.
“We had a lively discussion. It was a great group, very pragmatic. I think their bills will fare very well,” said Favola (D-31st), who worked with students whose bills ranged from mental-health training for teachers to raising the maximum age of child support through the college years.
Lopez (D-49th) said he was impressed by a proposal from his group that would required anyone buying a gun to show proof of a qualified liability-insurance policy. It was introduced by students Caroline Boda and Zoe Coutlakis.
“It’s an amazing idea – a very cool way of addressing the gun-violence epidemic,” Lopez said.
Stamos, who has participated in the forum each of the four years it has occurred, provided some real-life guidance, telling students that the focus of any legislation should be the common good that would be achieved.
“Be very careful of the person who begins a conversation with, ‘There ought to be a law . . .’” Stamos said, quoting one of her law professors.
Stamos is a big booster of the young people taking part in the Model General Assembly effort.
“It’s always great to see such great young minds and such enthusiasm,” she said.
Hope (D-47th) advised students to be respectful of different points of view from those across the commonwealth. “You just have to be prepared for those cultural clashes that are going to come up,” he said.
(Hope’s group was proposing bills ranging from decriminalization of marijuana and campaign-finance reform to a requirement requiring rabies vaccines for pet ferrets.)
Each year, approximately 450 students from across Virginia travel to Richmond for the three-day Model General Assembly session, taking on roles that include elected officials, lobbyists and media. The program, sponsored by YMCA, takes place in the actual legislative chambers used by members of the General Assembly.
Statewide, more than 50,000 Virginia students have participated since the program began in 1948, including some who have ended up in elected office themselves.
Arlington began taking part in Virginia’s Model General Assembly in 2009, when six students from the Arlington Career Center traveled to Richmond. The 2017 contingent of more than 70 students was the largest ever from the county.
“Each class gets better and better and more thoughtful,” Hope said.