(Melissa Gibson is a staff attorney at the disAbility Law Center who spent many hours in January and February working at the Virginia Legislature. She shares some of her impressions with us.)
In Hamilton: An American Musical, the performers sing “I wanna be in the room where it happens.” They were discussing a very different situation, but I can’t help but hum this song to myself when I am going into the General Assembly building. A lot of work goes into bills that the general public will never participate in.
But if you want to be in the room where things are happening, start at the House Subcommittees. This is typically the first opportunity to speak directly to a group of legislators who have significant power to support or kill the bill you’re following.
Hearing the discussion between the patron and subcommittee members and hearing others’ comments can also help you refine your advocacy strategy and public comment. Perhaps there is an opportunity to inject critical facts into the discussion; perhaps it’s a non-starter but an amendment will allow it to live on and get reported to committee. In the House subcommittees, so often, it can go gently into that good night without further comment.
For HB 1534, and HB 1536, a set of House Bills regarding student discipline, the subcommittee provided a great opportunity to listen to the sponsoring legislator passionately speak to the principles that animated him to patron the bill. Delegate Richard Bell discussed his bills, which were introduced with the goal of reducing allowable timeframes and offenses for long term suspension and eliminating the practice for very young students. He fielded criticisms and questions, consistently reinforcing the subcommittees’ obligations to educate all students, those with exceptional needs, the outliers who need the most protection. Other members joined him, building on those themes, and ultimately the subcommittee moved to report in a recorded 6-3 vote.
Those bills went through a number of dramatic transformations throughout the process, and neither made it out of the General Assembly. Nonetheless, the patron’s eloquent defense and the powerful comments from the subcommittee and public made it very worthwhile to be in the room that day. It was the room where it happened. I know that the excellent work of agencies like JustChildren will continue and hope that the importance of educating all of Virginia’s children, including and especially children with disabilities and other challenges, will continue to resonate with our elected representatives.