By most measurements, Olivia Yamamoto is an overachiever: top of her class at Henderson’s Coronado High School with a 4.8 GPA, a scholarship to Georgetown University and an accomplished junior golfer.
But perhaps the 18-year-old’s most impressive achievements came in an arena foreign to most teens: state politics.
As the first student to serve consecutive two-year terms in the Nevada Youth Legislature, Yamamoto authored two bills that have now been signed into law — a record some duly elected adult legislators have failed to match.
One bill required that sexual consent be taught as part of K-12 sexual education, while another outlawed criminal defenses based solely on a victim’s sexual orientation. Both received bipartisan support in the Legislature.
These feats are all the more impressive because each youth legislator gets just one shot at a bill proposal in a two-year term, and the 21 youth legislators must reach consensus on only one bill to send to the Nevada Senate.
“I got into politics at a very young age,” Yamamoto said. She remembers coloring in the red and blue states on an electoral map as a 7-year-old during the 2008 election. “I found it interesting.”
Yamamoto’s time on the youth legislature has passed, and she’s working part-time at Jamba Juice to save money for her move to Washington, D.C. in August. But she hopes to soon take a third crack at affecting Nevada policy.
“I hope that we can improve education funding so that Nevada kids can be more academically competitive,” Yamamoto said. “We can do more for our students and provide for our teachers.”
Yamamoto’s most recent victory came during the 2019 legislative session. She worked with her fellow youth legislators, as well as state Sens. Dallas Harris and Melanie Scheible and the Senate Committee on Judiciary to submit Senate Bill 97, which made Nevada the fourth state to outlaw so-called “gay or trans panic” defenses — rare criminal defenses in which the defendant claims the sexual or gender identity of the victim was a provocation for the crime.
The bill advanced through the Senate in April and the Assembly in May, both by wide margins. Gov. Steve Sisolak signed it into law on May 14.
Harris, a new appointee to the Senate, said she was “pleasantly surprised” to learn the youth legislature was looking at panic defenses and impressed with Yamamoto’s preparation for the initial hearing.
“They showed a lot of maturity in trying to tackle a large issue,” Harris said. “They were on the right side of history on this issue.”
Harris and Scheible, two of the Senate’s LGBTQ members, assisted Yamamoto with legal amendments and her hearing before the Assembly’s judiciary committee.
The bill was born out of tragedy.
Giovanni Melton, a 14-year-old Coronado student, was killed in 2017. The alleged murderer is Melton’s father, Wendell Melton, who Veronica Melton, Giovanni’s mother, alleges killed the boy because he was homosexual. His trial is set to begin this month.
Veronica Melton agreed to testify before the Judiciary Committee on behalf of Yamamoto’s bill.
“Her story was extremely emotional,” Yamamoto said. “Some of the legislators cried during her testimony.”
Yamamoto has remained close with the mother. Both are working to rally supporters to appear with them at Wendell Melton’s trial date.
“It was important that we got (the law passed) before he could use that excuse in court,” Veronica Melton said. “I don’t want any other child or person to have to go through what I’ve gone through.”
The youth legislature
Yamamoto shares this victory with her fellow youth legislators, who had to agree by majority to carry the bill.
Former state Sen. Valerie Wiener, who created the youth legislature in 2007 and chairs its foundation, said this required delicate negotiations.
After two votes, the youth legislature was deadlocked at a tie between Yamamoto’s bill and another co-sponsored by two members.
Wiener cautioned the group that it must reach consensus on a third vote, or else the law would dictate the youth legislature would not be allowed to propose a bill in the 2019 session. After respectful but intense debate, one of the competing bill’s co-sponsors flipped his vote to Yamamoto’s bill to ensure the youth legislature was heard on the Senate floor.
Wiener said this process and the serious nature of SB97 show just how far the youth legislature has come.
“These are teenagers who brought this bill,” Wiener said. “In the first youth legislature, they brought a bill on peer-mentoring in school. Which is not to say that peer-mentoring isn’t important, but this is a serious legal issue that affects both students and Nevada as a whole.”
Wiener said the young legislators, who are appointed by senators and represent between 27,000 and 42,000 children in those districts, spend the first year of their terms learning valuable skills for public service before spending the second year focused on their bill proposals. Each youth legislator has an advisory board made up of high school students from their district.
“They are truly the voice of young people in their districts,” Wiener said.
SB108 and the future
In 2017, Yamamoto worked with her fellow youth legislators to carry a Senate Bill 108 that will teach sexual consent and sexual assault deterrents to students as part of sex education. She was just 15 years old when it was signed into law.
Yamamoto said in June that the state government was still studying the best way to implement her law.
Although her resume would almost certainly be enough to land prestigious internships and a long life as a staffer or politician in her own right after college, Yamamoto said she’s choosing a different path by studying science, technology and international affairs with a concentration on energy and the environment.
“Originally, I was going to study political science,” Yamamoto said. “But my skills would be better used to create policy and protect resources in our environment.
“It’s up to my generation to combat climate change and make sure future generations can enjoy the environment,” she added.