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Concordia University students make a difference in Minnesota’s child protection laws

Learning went outside the classroom and stayed there earlier this year as a half-dozen Concordia University students prowled the halls of the state Capitol a mile from the campus in St. Paul.
Their mission was to get a law passed — and they did.

Concordia University students and allies watch Gov. Tim Pawlenty sign Kyle’s Law. Photo provided by Concordia University.

Their teacher was Jayne Jones, a Concordia adjunct, onetime staffer for former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, and now a partner in a political-consulting firm in St. Paul.

“They provided the facts, the energy, the enthusiasm, and finally, the committee testimony to get the bill enacted.” -Senate Minority Leader David Senjem

One evening not long before Jones’ class was to begin early this year, she happened to see a TV news story about Kyle Herman who, as a kindergarten student, had endured several instances of physical restraint, slapping, pinching, and intimidation at the hands of a teacher at a Spring Lake Park public school. School officials investigated and eventually dismissed the teacher. Yet Kyle’s parents didn’t learn about the investigation until nearly two years later. Kyle, who has Down syndrome, wasn’t able to describe what had happened.
After seeing the TV news story, Jones knew she was onto something. She rewrote her course syllabus. The first day of classes at Concordia that semester, she showed students both her original class outline and the new syllabus. She asked them which they preferred. The vote was 6-0 in favor of working on what came to be known as Kyle’s Law.
So instead of sitting in class, Jones’ stalwarts went regularly to the state Capitol. “I don’t think they knew, or I knew, how much work” would be involved, confesses Jones.

The students get busy:

Her students were “at the Capitol four days out of the week with their backpacks on, going through the hallways themselves,” says Jones — then text- ing, phoning, or e-mailing her about their meetings with legislators.
One of the students was Katie Benke of St. Paul, daughter of Pastor Robert Benke of Jehovah Lutheran Church, a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod congregation in St. Paul. She and the others “learned what it is like to pass a law and the impact it will have on future students across the state of Minnesota,” says the younger Benke — and “at the end of the day, knowing we made a difference.”
Under the new law, when a teacher is investigated under such circumstances, parents must be notified within 10 days of the abuse allegation, and again when the investigation is complete. The bill passed both House and Senate unanimously and Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed it in April 2010.
Yet students soon found out that passing a law is anything but easy. Balancing considerations include privacy and rights of the accused.
A key learning point for 2010 Concordia graduate Benke, who now works as a field staff representative for the House Republican Caucus, is that politics is the art of the possible. Indeed, in pushing for a law, the Concordia team lost on four of the six points for which it asked. For example, students wanted harsher penalties for repeat offenders. That was removed from the final legislation. Nevertheless, Benke and her peers stayed focused. “The overall purpose,” she says, “was to protect children.”

setbacks are a part of the process

Gabby DeMarre, working this summer as an intern at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., will be a senior at Concordia this academic year. She agrees that setbacks are a part of the process — and part of the learning experience. “Keep your chin up,” says DeMarre. “You get a lot of discouraging kinds of things happening. You’ve got to keep going.”
Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, a Rochester Republican, says the Concordia students were indeed crucial in moving the legislation ahead. Their involvement, Senjem adds, was “a huge factor. They provided the facts, the energy, the enthusiasm, and finally, the committee testimony to get the bill enacted.” The legislation “would have faced a more difficult journey without them,” says Senjem. “They were the catalysts who gave it the energy it needed to move forward.”
Rep. Kory Kath, an Owatonna DFLer, agrees. “These students brought a passion and the reality of how concerned Minnesotans can create change in our state,” he says.
Kath’s suggestion for other teachers who may be interested in such projects is first to study an issue and contact a local legislator about it. “Then,” says Kath, “pursue your goals with enthusiasm and a commitment to reaching compromise when needed.”
Minority Leader Senjem adds this advice: Trust students to take the lead. “Yes, give them some guidance,” he says, “but then turn them loose. Let them experience the political process firsthand. They will learn as much from their failures as they will with their successes.”
At Concordia University, the adventure continues. Jones will teach another such class during the next legislative session in 2011. DeMarre, one of the 2010 participants, will help lead the class this year — and students will be back at the Legislature on yet another mission.

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