WASHOUGAL — Jaelyn Sotelo was traveling to San Diego for spring break earlier this year when she got an email that made her hop right back on a plane for home.
The Skyview High School junior, who is a full-time Running Start student at Clark College, received an invitation to watch Gov. Jay Inslee sign a bill raising the smoking age to 21. She flew from San Diego to Seattle, and took a train to Vancouver so she could make the signing in time.
“It was so worth it to be there in the end,” she said. “It was surreal to be there and see the governor signing the bill, and see all the cameras there.”
Sotelo scored the invitation because of her local activism, particularly with youth drug prevention. During her time in high school, Sotelo has joined a few coalitions and participated in local groups such as Strong Teens Against Substance Hazards and Abuse. She also attended two trainings organized by Educational Service District 112’s Prevent Coalition.
On Thursday, she helped organize the coalition’s latest training. It brought together more than 60 students from schools in Clark, Cowlitz, Skamania and Klickitat counties. Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, was also on hand to receive an award and answer questions from the students. This year’s training had a theme of “Use Your Voice.”
“They were really passionate and engaged in what was going on,” Sotelo said.
The training was held at Excelsior High School in Washougal, and lasted most of the day. Students learned how laws are made, worked on public speaking skills and split into groups to craft messages on issues important to them. The groups discussed issues like whether flavored vaping products should be banned, bringing better mental health services into schools, how a community center could help students stay out of trouble and taking away the stigma of seeking help for mental health.
Another student who helped organize Thursday’s event was Kyle Nelson, a senior at Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School and a lieutenant in the criminal justice program at Cascadia Tech Academy. Nelson said a lot of students commented on how they’d like to see more investment from adults in helping youth tackle these issues.
“We need more interaction between adults and youths,” Nelson said. “There’s not enough trust between the two groups. They need to trust each other more.”
Nelson wants to become an attorney and then work in the Senate, work that was partially inspired by seeing Harris speak.
“Just listening to the work he’s done and what he cares about, I felt like making an impact was something I needed to do,” Nelson said.
The two students presented Harris with an award from the coalition for his work in getting the smoking age raised. Harris spoke to the students about his career, and said some of their interests will come up in the next session. He told students to expect to hear about legislation on vaping products. One student asked what the most controversial bill he’s worked on has been.
Harris said it was House Bill 1638, which Inslee signed in Vancouver earlier this year. The bill concerned immunizations, and eliminated personal and philosophical exemptions to requirements that children in public and private schools as well as licensed day-care centers receive the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Harris said he had groups following him around chanting in the lead up to the vote before the bill passed. He told the students he didn’t waver because it was an important issue to him.
“You have to believe in your issues,” Harris said.
One topic Harris expects to come up during the next session could rival the vaccines bill in controversy, he said, and that’s a bill on making sex education mandatory in schools.
“I absolutely believe we need sex ed in school,” he said. “I believe it should be mandatory.”
He told students he would want to make sure the content was appropriate, but Harris envisions it could start with students in K-5 learning to respect each other and about informed consent.
When a student asked how they help get bills passed, Harris said it’s important for them to voice their support to their local legislators.
“Personal stories are great,” he told the students. “Try to meet with your legislators, and if they don’t get back to you, email them saying you’re disappointed. Don’t let them off the hook.”