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Kentucky Students Protest Politics In a Bill They Helped Craft

A group of Kentucky students has planned to rally on the steps of the state capitol Monday to encourage lawmakers to pass a bill they helped craft--and which has become a victim of the political process.

The students want to change the law to allow students to serve on the committees that screen superintendent candidates before school boards make their appointments. The idea, they argue, is to give students a voice. The bill passed the House in a 88-5 vote. But earlier this month, two lawmakers in the Kentucky Senate attached controversial amendments that made the bill, as presented, nearly impossible to pass.

"We were surprised. Especially when we read the content of the two amendments," said Gentry Fitch, senior at West Jessamine High School in Nicholasville. Fitch is a member of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence's Student Voice Team.

One of the amendments, proposed by Republican Sen. C.B. Embry Jr., would prevent students who identify as transgender from using the bathroom of their identified gender. The bill stems from a decision by Louisville's Atherton High School's site-based decision-making council to allow a transgender student to use the bathroom of her choosing--a move applauded by Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday.

In an email to WFPL, Embry said he supports the student's bill and said he "had hoped to work with the outstanding students that support that bill" in an effort to get both bills heard in the House.

"I am giving the amendment issue consideration and may change my course of action Monday," said Embry.

Later, Embry said: "Talks continue with leadership as I am seeking their support in letting HB 236 be voted on in hopes of it passing." Embry added that if another course of action was needed to pass his amendment, "that may well happen."

Republican Sen. Albert Robinson might be a tougher sell.

His amendment would "permit students to voluntarily express religious or political viewpoints in school assignments free from discrimination," a bill which he said is not controversial.

"I really didn't like the [student voice] bill on its own but I would have supported it with the amendments," said Robinson. "I think the children need to be instructed rather than determine who the superintendent is."

Robinson also said that students serving on a superintendent-screening committee "would happen very seldom."

But students advocating for the legislation argue that it is about giving them a chance to have a voice.

"We thought that it was a small ask," said Andrew Brennen, a Paul Laurence Dunbar High School graduate from Fayette County Schools who helped form the Student Voice Team that's leading the effort.

Brennen attends the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill but is now back in Kentucky, speaking with lawmakers to help the team get this bill passed.

"Frankly we're surprised that it's become such a contentious and, now, seemingly political issue," he said. "Our immediate reaction was to resist [the amendments]."

Instead the students were in Frankfort on Friday, trying to speak with lawmakers and discuss ways to get their side of the law changed, he said. The students are also planning a rally Monday as the General Assembly convenes for the last two days of the session.

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