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Armwood seniors pitch Unaccompanied Youth Bill to lawmakers

Michael Himes, Stephanie Walker, Tori Wilson, Jessica Ireland and Tiara Brooks stand in front of the state seal at the Capitol. The seniors went to Tallahassee last week to meet with lawmakers and present a bill on behalf of their peers who are unaccompanied youths.

Courtesy of Tony Pirotta

Michael Himes, Stephanie Walker, Tori Wilson, Jessica Ireland and Tiara Brooks stand in front of the state seal at the Capitol. The seniors went to Tallahassee last week to meet with lawmakers and present a bill on behalf of their peers who are unaccompanied youths.

SEFFNER — Five Armwood High School seniors got a big opportunity last week to present a bill to lawmakers in Tallahassee.

The proposed legislation would make it easier for kids who aren't living with their parents or guardians to participate in school activities. It sailed through the House Civil Justice Subcommittee Tuesday without a single opposing vote.

"I think they knew how nervous we were,'' 18-year-old Jessica Ireland said the day after she and her classmates pitched House Bill 1351.

Also known as the Unaccompanied Youth Bill, the proposed legislation still has one more committee to clear before it can be heard on the House floor. In 2011, a similar proposal tucked into a different House bill didn't make it past the first committee.

"I never realized the work that goes into passing a bill,'' said Michael Himes, 18. "It was an eye-opening experience.''

The students from teacher Tony Pirotta's U.S. Government class won the right to present the bill through an 8-year-old Hillsborough County program "There Ought to be a Law.''

High school students draft real bills, then compete for a chance to help get them passed.

"This program scares me,'' state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, joked during the Civil Justice Committee meeting.

"I'm worried you might trade me for one of these young, bright people,'' he told subcommittee chairman Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando.

Eisnaugle responded: "I just might.''

The Armwood students borrowed the idea for their bill from former Leto High senior Sergio Velazquez.

Velazquez became an unaccompanied youth in 2010 when his family moved back to New York. Now at Saint Leo University in Pasco County, he fought to stay in Tampa and graduate from high school.

Unaccompanied youths are typically those older than 16 who are not in the physical custody of their parents or a guardian.

They often go unnoticed until a problem occurs or they break down from the stress of trying to make it on their own.

Without a parent or guardian's signature, these students can't participate in school sports, go on field trips, or even get medicine from a nurse. One classmate can't even sign himself in and out of the school, said senior Tori Wilson, 18.

"We see it every day at school,'' Wilson added.

Some of these kids are not old enough to be truly on their own. They can't sign rental leases, get birth certificates or drivers' licenses "which makes everything else hard,'' she said.

The Florida Department of Education estimates there are about 6,500 unaccompanied youth statewide.

Hillsborough County's school district has about 74 such students, spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. At Armwood, there are 21 unaccompanied youths and 40 homeless students.

Nothing in current state law specifically addresses unaccompanied youth, said state Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who is co-sponsoring the bill.

His bill and a companion one introduced by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, would change that by giving unaccompanied youth essentially the same rights as emancipated minors.

Armwood seniors Stephanie Walker and Tiara Brooks also traveled to Tallahassee to take part in the presentation.

For all of them, it was a special experience, Pirotta said.

"They're really becoming legislators,'' he said, "going and lobbying a bill and seeing the process of a bill from inception to finished product.''

The students didn't really grasp how momentous the occasion was until they came face to face with Florida's most influential leaders.

Then it hit them.

"We're one of the very few,'' Ireland said, "who get to present a bill.''

Armwood seniors pitch Unaccompanied Youth Bill to lawmakers 02/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 4, 2012 3:31am]

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