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Students push to remove age requirements to speak at Cobb County School Board meetings

Currently, students who are under 18 years old can only speak during public comment if a parent or guardian is present.

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Cobb County students said they want to speak up at their board meetings, but many of them can't. Since 2003, there's been a policy in place that states, "students under the age of 18 must be accompanied by the student’s parent/guardian."

Seventeen-year-old Jake Hays attended the last school board meeting Jan. 20. He was only allowed to speak because his mother was there.

"It's going with a very one-size-fits-all view of what a family is and not everyone has the privilege to be able to have their parent go with them," he said. "My mom had to go with me after having a two hour surgery, and then had to drive there so that I was able to speak."

Hays turns 18 in late February, and would be allowed to speak without a guardian present during that time. By then, he'll be just about two months away from graduating from Lassiter High School.

"I think that it is a way to effectively suppress the student voices" he added. "They try and make it harder for people to talk about the issues within the district.”

However, that didn't stop Hays and his underaged colleagues from finding a guardian and speaking out at board meetings. He showed up with other students, including Alexa Harkey and Jack Fierce, to push for change.

Credit: CCSD

On the Jan. 20 meeting, board member Dr. Jaha Howard filed a motion to amend that policy and remove the age requirement.  Board members Howard, Leroy Tre' Hutchins, and Charisse Davis voted in favor to that motion, while Randy Scamihorn, Davis Chastain, David Banks, and Brad Wheeler voted against it.

"I sent an email to each of the board members and only got a response from the three Democratic members," Hays said. "I did not get a response from the other four Republican members. I also called the superintendent's office multiple times and he was out of the office every time that I called."

So he approached them towards the end of the board meeting, specifically speaking to David Banks and Brad Wheeler.

"When I was talking to [David Banks] and asked him why he voted against BCBI, he asked me what BCBI was, which was, frankly, disgusting to me," Hays said. "He had just voted against it. Nobody likes feeling like they're talking to a brick wall but at times, that's how you feel at the meetings.”

We reached out to Banks and have not heard back.  Here's a statement provided by a district spokesperson:

“Board policy BCBI is a Board policy and, to date, our Board believes the existing policy is the most effective way to balance student voice and parent rights.”

However, board member Dr. Jaha Howard does not believe the policy reflects his point of view.

"We have a lot to learn from our young people," he said. "Different board meetings, I'm inspired by them. They make great points. They're passionate, they're logical. We have a lot to learn from them."

11Alive reached out to several school districts across the state and none of the following districts have an age requirement to speak at board meetings: 

"If you care enough to research when the meetings are, show up to sign up for the meetings, drive to get to the meetings, and have a speech ready for the meetings, you should be able to speak at the meetings, because you've demonstrated your responsibility to going through those hoops," Hays added.

Some districts, including Coweta, stated they will occasionally reach out to a parent to make sure they allow it.

RELATED: Parents in Cobb County express frustrations with school district amid COVID

"The big thing is that the community needs to be heard and the community is waking up all around the county, no matter what corner it is and no matter what, the community will be heard," Dr. Howard added.

Just last week, the Cobb County school board also voted to no longer allow people who want to speak at public meetings to sign up online. According to Hays, that's yet another curveball thrown their way.

"It seems to have come right after students started signing up who are possibly more tech savvy and less inclined to wait an hour to stand outside," he concluded. "We have busy lives. We get out of school and it's 40 minutes away. That’s a whole lot to go through to then not be guaranteed too be able to speak."

RELATED: Cobb County addresses COVID-19 concerns in virtual town hall