First, some background.
In October of 2014, almost a year and a half ago, a small county in my home state, Colorado, became a headline on national news. The Jefferson County Board of Education’s majority created a committee that was to edit and review the framework for the College Board’s AP United States History (APUSH) class. The proposed new curriculum would alter the existing one to be more American-centric and patriotic, removing events such as the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and Japanese internment camps. Alarmed, students across the county walked out of their classes in protest, paving the way for further student walkouts and expressions of student power later that year when the Black Lives Matter movement erupted across Denver. For the first time in a while, students used their voices and took power into their own hands. Fox News reportedly called the students “punks” and the Board accused them of being union pawns.
While walking out of class made a bold statement, protests alone were not enough to get the Board of Education to listen. The students formed a group called Jeffco Students for Change (JSFC), their own student power alliance, in order to transition from “rebels” to a more organized group that perhaps the Board would listen to. From October 2014 on, they started going to Board meetings to observe and make their presence known.
I joined JSFC around November. As we attended more and more meetings, we learned there were more problems with the Board than the APUSH debacle. The three members who constituted a majority on the five member board, nicknamed the BOE3, consistently disrespected members during public comment, broke policy in favor of their supporters, and broke sunshine laws to meet in private. The solution became obvious—seven months before the school board elections, JSFC and a group called Jeffco United For Action launched a recall effort.
This is where our points about youth voting become important. Jeffco United for Action rallied teachers, parents, community members, but above all—students. JSFC was extremely active in the recall movement—we created signs, attended and organized rallies, and drove all around the county to distribute petitions and collect signatures from those who were of age. The key words there are those who were of age. In order to get a ballot measure for a recall, at least 15,000 county residents of voting age must sign a petition. Students, the young people who were most affected by the actions of the BOE3, weren’t able to sign the recall petitions, much less actually vote on the recall that would directly impact their education. Most of the students most passionate about the cause were unable to contribute more than their moral support or their physical presence at events.
In the end, we got the BOE3 recalled. But what would have happened if this was a closer race? What would have happened if this was a different issue hurting students that adults didn’t pay attention to? What about giving us, the students a real say in the process? Had the election gone the other way, the school district would have sunk into a more dangerous environment for students, hurting everyone in the district.
Young people have the power to turn the polls. They have the power and the knowledge to know what is right for themselves—in this case, their education. Education is not flimsy—it needs to protect. Students knew that. This was their education. This was our education that we did not have a say in because most of us were too young to participate in the piece of democracy that counts—our vote.
Hannah Sun is a member of the Vote16USA Youth Advisory Board. She is from Denver and is now a student at Emerson College. While in high school, following the Jefferson County recall election, she worked on an emerging effort to lower the voting age for school board elections in the state.