Opinion and Forefront

BONIFIELD: The power of backpacks left at the door

June 16, 2012

Jake BonifieldIn April last year, in a small conference room outside the Indiana University Student Association office in the Memorial Union building, a movement was set in motion. The newly elected student government was in attendance, along with the leadership of a year-old organization I and several IU students founded called Hoosier Youth Advocacy.

Hoosier Youth Advocacy, a not-for-profit formed to advise student governments in their dealings with the General Assembly, was brought in to advise the IU students how best to push through two bills.

The first, a bill that would establish a tax holiday for textbooks, was a common-sense measure aimed at giving students a slight reprieve from the soaring costs of textbooks. This bill was unlikely to advance in a short, non-budget session, but a second initiative, we thought, might have a chance of becoming law.

This second bill was the topic of the meeting, and from the start it was clear the Indiana Lifeline Law (Senate Bill 274), was a worthwhile idea and a cause close to the hearts of all the students in the room.

The law provides a criminal liability shield that protects “callers” from prosecution if they dial 911 on behalf of a victim in need of emergency care. The bill was narrowly tailored to prevent episodes similar to that which is believed to have occurred the night missing IU student Lauren Spierer disappeared. Lauren’s parents were so moved by our initiative, in fact, that they later submitted a very emotional letter in support of the Lifeline Law that was read in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill passed out of committee unanimously in spite of opposition from the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

From day one, Hoosier Youth Advocacy was particularly adamant that we engage legislators in an erudite, serious manner—with evidence, narrative and an unbending no-backpack rule.

The latter was more symbolic than something the student leaders involved need reminding of. Rather, it was meant to encapsulate our approach to advocacy—if you want to be taken seriously as college students, you must learn the process and execute a strategy flawlessly.

We authored a detailed legislative plan in May that included committee lists, voting records, previously introduced bills, interest group contact lists, and even campaign contributions, then worked with all the schools involved to see that the plan was executed to a tee. The IU student association and coalition partners understood the message and took our advice to heart.

Student body presidents from IU and Purdue, as well as Hoosier Youth leadership, testified and met with key legislators throughout the fall of 2011 and into the session. These meetings were part of a larger legislative and media strategy formulated by Hoosier Youth as early as the summer before, but it was the professional presentation of our ideas and impassioned, confident testimony that were the compelling factors in the bill’s passage.

This cogent, sustained effort by student leaders from both sides of the aisle and across the state, a year in the making, concluded in March when the governor signed the bill into law. It was a proud day for Hoosier Youth, the IU student association and all others involved.

In the end, the passage achieved something beyond safer campuses, more responsive student behavior and heightened awareness; the Lifeline Law and the targeted advocacy behind it proved that college students, with the right strategy and intentions, can make a difference in state policy. They just need to leave their backpacks at the door.•

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Bonifield is a senior political science major at DePauw University and president of Hoosier Youth Advocacy, an organization focused on increasing youth participation in the Indiana General Assembly. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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