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Minn. Student Leaders Push for Place at Policy Table

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Student involvement in Minnesota has gone beyond proms and homecoming floats. Statewide, student councils are asking tough questions about students' rights and responsibilities.

Students in the state increasingly confer with school boards, district administrators, and state education officials in a drive to become players in their own educations. They are more interested in debating graduation requirements than setting up senior-year parties, said Tirzah McPherson, 16, the president of the Minneapolis student-government association, which includes about 50 students from eight high schools.

"Students want to be part of the big decisions--not just 'When will the next dance be?' but 'What is Goals 2000 and how will it affect me?'" Ms. McPherson said.

With that in mind, student-government leaders in Minneapolis last month drew up the "Minneapolis Bill of Student Rights and Responsibilities." The document proposes that all students have the right to:

* Be included in decisions that affect their educations;

* Attend schools that treat all people fairly regardless of race, gender, national origin, religion, marital or parental status, pregnancy, sexual orientation, or financial status; and

* Be taught by competent, knowledgeable teachers.

The document also says students have a responsibility to adhere to school discipline codes and to treat others who have differing viewpoints with respect.

The students recently presented their proposals to the Minneapolis school board, which applauded their efforts and is expected to incorporate the proposals into the district's policies.

"The document is a wonderful example of our most powerful stakeholders showing that they have huge expectations for us and themselves," Peter Hutchinson, the superintendent of the Minneapolis schools, said last week.

Terra Cole, a senior at Minneapolis North High School who helped write the bill, said her generation's way is not to storm the doors of the school building in protest, but rather to employ a more diplomatic approach.

"We are not the type to have a walkout like in the '60s. We'd much rather sit down at the table with adults and lay it all out and be honest," the 17-year-old said.

Statewide Effort

In recent months, the efforts of students in Minneapolis have blossomed into a statewide call to ensure students' presence at the policy-making table.

Student leaders from Duluth to Rochester met with the state board of education last month to discuss possible changes in the graduation requirements.

And more than 300 student-government members from across the state met last week at the Minnesota Association of Student Councils' convention in Willmar. Students there overwhelmingly approved a bill of student rights and responsibilities for all Minnesota students. They plan to present the document to the legislature within the next three months.

Already, several lawmakers have applauded the young people's ideas, but it remains unclear how lawmakers might move some of the students' positions through the legislature. Legislators have said they may weave them into pending education legislation or pass them as a separate resolution.

Only one other state, Massachusetts, has passed a student-rights bill, according to the Education Commission of the States. Gov. William F. Weld in December 1994 signed into law a measure guaranteeing the rights of gay students in that state. An effort to pass a broader student-rights bill in Wisconsin in 1989 failed before it reached the full legislature.

If the Minnesota students' proposal becomes law, it would be the first item on a long wish list, said Shamus Roller, the student representative on the state school board.

"Students see problems with education just like others do and want to have a hand in changing things that are wrong," Mr. Roller, 18, said. For instance, Mr. Roller would support efforts to reform teacher tenure and seniority contracts because, he said, they "allow teachers that aren't good for students to stay where they are."

Even though some of the students' suggestions may not be embraced by state education leaders, teachers' unions, or other groups, said Jeanne Kling, the president of the state board, the student drive to become more involved in education policy is an excellent learning experience in itself.

"These are serious young men and women who are serious about having a good education," she said.

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