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A panel of high school students charged with developing legislative recommendations on Friday told lawmakers they want to see bills improving access to mental health services for youth and higher education for foster students as well as measures to revamp the youth advisory council.

The recommendations stem from Colorado Youth Advisory Council, a panel of 35 students aged 14-19 years old hailing from each state senate district as well as an additional 5 at-large members. Legislation passed in 2019 set up a Review Committee made up of five non-voting youth members appointed by the council and five lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, Joint Budget Committee Chair Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, and Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, are the lawmakers on the panel, with a fifth legislative member yet to be appointed. The committee has the power to hold up to three meetings and recommend up to three bills.  Its youth members on Friday kicked off this year's slate of meetings with presentations on issues they want to see addressed legislatively.

The first presentation focused on revamping mental health accessibility at schools by shifting emphasis away from the Office of the Attorney General’s Safe2Tell reporting system by making the state Department of Human Services’ Colorado Crisis Services more prominent.

Aimee Resnick, a senior at Cherry Creek High School, Taleen Sample, a senior at Kent Denver School, and Bennett Lane, a senior at Denver North High School, told the Review Committee Safe2Tell, a program set up in the wake of Columbine, was an effective tool in deterring school shootings. But Sample said in her experience, using the line has led to students being “dissuaded from seeking mental health support in the future” because it led to interactions with law enforcement.

Both Sample and Resnick said they felt Colorado Crisis Services could serve as a far better alternative for students struggling with their mental health. But they added that unlike Safe2Tell, which is required to be advertised in schools, Colorado Crisis Services is not broadly known by students. The trio called for the program to be advertised in schools, a move they said could be done without a legislative appropriation, and for the legislature to direct funding for an additional employee for the program, where they said backlogs have been stacking up due to lack of staff.

Livi Christiansen, a senior at Poudre High School, followed with a presentation calling for legislation to expand access to higher education for foster care students. She cited data from the University of Denver’s Colorado Action and Evaluation Lab showing just 13.4% of foster students in Colorado entered post-secondary education by age 21 compared to 55.8% of high school graduates in Colorado.

Christiansen highlighted a Texas program that requires public universities in the state to employ counselors for foster youth as well as waive tuition and fees for those students. She called for a bill creating a similar system in Colorado.

“The Colorado Youth Advisory Council believes this practical and empathetic approach will lead to higher enrollment in higher education from foster youth and higher graduation rates, two future statistics that the foster care youth of Colorado deserve to be a part of their story,” she said.

That recommendation was met with a hint of skepticism by Moreno, who noted Texas universities receive significantly more support from the state than their counterparts in Colorado, which is “fairly notoriously at the bottom of support for higher ed.” According to data from the National Science Board, Colorado ranks 45th in the country in state support for higher education per full-time students.

Moreno instead pointed to a bill he ran in 2019 as a potential model. The legislation created a scholarship program for youth previously involved in the criminal justice system and carried a fiscal note of just over $300,000 per year, likely far lower than Christiansen’s proposal.

Finally, Fairview High School Junior Karthik Reddy called for an overhaul of the the advisory panel's admission process and meeting structure, advocating for an online option to boost rural accessibility.

The panel wrapped up its meeting by selecting McKean to serve as temporary chair and Moreno as temporary vice chair until those roles can be filled on a permanent basis. The committee will meet next on Sept. 3 to discuss bill drafts stemming from the presentations and will wrap up its work with an October to approve the legislation and move it on to Legislative Council.

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