After she was involved in student council, Black Student Union, Student Inner Council, Feminist Club and other schoolwide organizations, the Youth Legislature was a natural next step for Naomi Atnafu.
Atnafu, 17, is a senior at Valley High School and has served as the youth legislator representing District 11 in southwest Las Vegas since 2017. Her term ends in May.
Twenty-one students are selected statewide, one by each district’s senator, to serve two-year terms. She was selected then-Sen. Aaron Ford, now Nevada’s attorney general.
Ford, who spoke by phone from Carson City, said he selected Atnafu in part because of her interest in being engaged in the democratic process — which was unavailable to her parents in their native Ethiopia.
Atnafu’s family immigrated to the United States about 20 years ago, she said.
Youth legislators draft bills and maintain a relationship with people in their districts.
Along with drafting her bill, Atnafu said she created a district youth advisory council last year, made up of students from the schools in her district.
She said she also went to several schools in District 11 to get ideas of the problems the schools are facing and what students would like to see change.
Atnafu said Nevada’s backlog of unprocessed rape kits inspired her to write her bill, a proposal to change the health and sex-education curriculum for Clark County School District schools. She proposed adding requirements that students be asked to talk about human trafficking and prevention, and learn how they can detect and stay away from it.
Ford said he and Atnafu “shared a common goal of educating students on sex trafficking.”
Each of the 21 youth legislators presents a bill, and collectively they decide on one to present to the Nevada Legislature. Atnafu’s bill was not chosen, but the bill she signed on to co-sponsor was. That bill would ban “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense — under which a defendant accused of committing a violent crime may use a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a defense tactic.
The bill, Senate Bill 97, was introduced to the Senate Judiciary on March 19. No action was taken. Atnafu was in Carson City, along with the bill’s sponsor, Olivia Yamamoto, who represents District 20, during the hearing to advocate for the bill.
Atnafu said she felt that the bill had a lot of support, but some opposition was heard from the public defender’s offices in Clark and Washoe counties and the Nevada District Attorneys Association. Atnafu said they argued it would limit a defendant’s right to a fair trial and due process.
“I have a son the same age as her, and I believe their generation has an understanding and knowledge of acceptance different than previous generations,” Ford said.
Aside from the gay panic and sex education curriculum bills, Atnafu said, youth legislators’ ideas included ensuring students have a safe space to talk about mental health issues. She said having someone on campuses who is certified to talk about mental health and educate teachers on how to address it would be helpful.
The Youth Legislature meets once a month as a group. Atnafu’s term ends May 31.
Ford has worked with two other youth legislators. He said both are in college.
Atnafu said she’s passionate about women’s rights, equality among minorities in the education system and affirmative action, and she plans to attend Pacific Lutheran University in Washington state in the fall. She aims to work in international law after graduating.
Twenty-one high-schoolers serve two-year terms, each representing one of Nevada’s senatorial districts. They’re appointed by state senators, with input from Assembly members.
For a list of this year’s Youth Legislature members, click here.