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Kentucky students could soon have more power in the state's education system

Alix Mattingly
WFPL, Kentucky Public Radio

The Kentucky General Assembly is currently considering two proposed bills that would open the door for more high school student participation in the state's education system.

Those bills would give high school students a seat on every school district's board of education and allow a student member of the state board of education to vote on matters being considered by the board.

House Bill 161 would require each local school board in Kentucky to include at least one student representative by the 2024-2025 school year. The high school student would be elected by their peers and would participate in meetings like any other regular member of the board, except for executive or closed sessions.

The local student representative would not have an official vote on board matters but would be allowed to provide a non-binding advisory vote on action items.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 22 would give the existing student member role on the state's Board of Education an official vote. Additionally, the proposed bill would require two board members to have a child enrolled in a public school.

'Students should have a voice'

Since 2020, Kentucky has had a student representative on the state school board. Each year, one public school student is selected by the board to serve as a member and participate in meetings. While the students are expected to provide input, student members do not yet have an official vote.

Joud Dahleh from Florence is the state board's current student member. Dahleh is a junior at the Ignite Institute in Boone County and wants to eventually become a nurse. She was appointed to the position last year and says the experience has been extremely valuable, but still thinks students like her could have a bigger voice.

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"Students are the ones who are experiencing the decisions made at the board," Dahleh said, "If you're making decisions about students, students should have a say about the decisions that affect them."

Dahleh points out that the board's chair, Lu Young, has done a great job including students in important discussions and making their input feel valuable. Still, the idea that someone in her position could one day officially vote on board matters intrigues Dahleh. She says a stronger student voice could help move education in Kentucky forward.

"Everyone who is on board was a student at one time, but education has evolved. It's continuously evolving as we speak, so having a student's voice keeps those decisions and those thoughts up-to-date," Dahleh said.

When asked about having a student representative on every local school board, Dahleh says it's an idea that a lot of students would get behind and would show school districts how much students care about their education.

"If you give students the opportunity, you will be amazed at what they have to say," Dahleh told WVXU. "If you're getting that continuous information, hearing voices from the students, you'll notice that people, they'll eventually start listening."

Last month Dahleh, along with other members of the Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner's Advisory Council, presented their ideas to improve school safety and limit the risk of violence within the state's schools.

Some of those ideas were to more diligently respond to at-risk behaviors and warning signs, along with supporting gun control legislation like requiring mental health evaluations before purchasing a firearm.

RELATED: A federal grant will bring more counselors to Northern Kentucky schools

Dahleh says mental health and school safety is at the forefront of many students' minds and giving students like her more of a say may eventually lead to tangible solutions to prevent violent incidents and school shootings in the future.

"That's something I think all students, even if it's not a day-to-day worry, everyone has thought about it because of how often it happens and how tragic it is," Dahleh said. "The school environment should be safe. Everyone knows that. It's just, how do we get there?"

The Kentucky Board of Education is accepting applications for its next student member for the 2023-2024 school year. The applicant must reside in the state's 5th Congressional District and be a sophomore at the time the application is submitted. The deadline to apply is March 6.

Kentucky's current legislative session wraps up March 30.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.