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Make youth issues a legislative priority

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Ethan Lowder, Sruthi Palaniappan and Nina Yu

The State of Iowa Youth Advisory Council (SIYAC) is a non-partisan policy advising organization that consists of 21 youth appointed from across the state who advocate for youth issues. During this year’s legislative session, SIYAC focused on key issues affecting Iowa’s young people. As the 2015-2016 Council has come to an end, we are reflecting on the results of the Council’s legislative agenda.

The Council supported requirements to educate students on sexual assault and dating violence, a common sense step, which passed the Iowa Senate unanimously but died in the House. One in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, with 79 percent assaults taking place before age 25 according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite the magnitude of this problem, political pressure killed the bill upon consideration in the Iowa House.

SIYAC crafted bipartisan legislation educating teachers on suicide prevention which provided plans created by schools on how to respond to suicide should it occur. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Iowa for teenagers and young adults, and the suicide rate is only increasing according to recent public health statistics. This bill was crafted by a bipartisan coalition of legislators and received the endorsements of members of both parties.

The Council also championed a bill to test and mitigate radon concentrations in our Iowa schools. Radon is a carcinogenic gas that occurs in naturally high levels in Iowa and is a proven cause of lung cancer. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, this gas results in the death of more than 400 Iowans each year. All 99 of Iowa’s counties are at the highest risk for radon exposure, with schools being particularly susceptible to this potent gas due to their construction and the extensive amount of time students and teachers spend in them. This bill did not advance past subcommittee despite strong scientific consensus about the danger of radon. Concerns were raised about the cost of testing and potential remediation and while this legislation is necessary it died, despite the support of the scientific community and available resources.

Finally, SIYAC advocated for a bill to set the legal age for using indoor tanning devices to age 18. Using indoor tanning beds increases the likelihood of skin cancer and tanning is found to have the same addictive effects as cigarettes or tobacco products according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. The legislation failed to receive a floor vote due to opposition by a minority of legislators, who believe that the government should not regulate this practice despite its well-documented and medically significant negative effects.

The proposed reformers are not considered radical, are scientifically supported, and many of the proposed policies mimic policies of other states. The sexual assault education bill has been passed in some form in 19 states with tangible success. Suicide prevention training for teachers is provided in some form in 21 states, with Iowa being one of only three states to have no laws on the books regarding suicide prevention training for educators. While it can be accessed through the Department of Public Health, the federal grant that provides it will expire next year. Iowa is one of only eight states to have no regulation of tanning for minors whatsoever. Finally, Iowa consistently ranked at the highest risk level for radon exposure, yet we have no policy in place for testing or remediation in our schools. If one thing is clear about these four bills, it is this: Iowa is behind the curve.

Despite the urgency of the aforementioned legislation and the verified success other state governments have had in implementing similar policies, SIYAC feels the issues important to the safety of youth in our state are being overlooked. Suicide, sexual assault, skin and lung cancer are all reaching epidemic proportions. These challenges to our health and well-being can no longer be commonplace in our communities.

There is a sense of urgency in these policies and others that have languished for years in the legislature without the possibility of open debate. As the Council prepares for its upcoming term beginning in July, we look forward to addressing these issues during next year’s legislative session and encourage all young Iowans to become engaged in the legislative process. The only way to break repetitive politics is to become active in it. This is a call to action to policy makers and advocates to invest in legislation, which will protect our youth, and we hope it will not go unanswered.

• Cedar Rapids area youth SIYAC representative Ethan Lowder recently completed his sophomore year at Xavier High School. Representatives Sruthi Palaniappan and Nina Yu are 2016 Cedar Rapids-area high school graduates.

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