Three students talking to one another at a table.

Students on the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council discussing student voice and interviewing one another on their thoughts and opinions. Photo by Crystal Sicard, Kentucky Department of Education, April 25, 2024

Members of the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE’s) Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council discussed substance and vaping use within schools and student voice during their meeting on April 24.

Judi Vanderhaar, Florence Chang and Jessica Napier from KDE’s Division of Student Success told the council that the use of substances and vaping within schools has increased significantly.

“The biggest increases in behavior incidents related to substance use are with the younger students, so that forecasts what is coming in the later grades. Previously, we may have thought this was a secondary school issue, but this data tells us we will need to increase our guidance and supports for all ages,” said Chang, who is a program consultant for KDE.

Some council members said students are mimicking what they see in their lives.

“I feel like it’s a learned trait,” said Ava Benson, a senior at Henderson County High School. “We see a lot of adults in our lives when they’ve had a rough day at work, they’re going to have a glass of wine or they smoke cigarettes because of stress. So then, whenever these students are feeling unsupported and stressed, they see what their adults in their lives are doing and they think, ‘Even though I’m underage, maybe that could help me,’” said Benson.

Vanderhaar said KDE recommendations for districts and schools include implementing prevention efforts, supportive responses for students and updating school policies.

India Young, a junior at Marion County High School, said her district requires freshmen to go through a truth and consequences course.

“Through the course, they take us to the courthouse, they go through different kinds of situations and take us through what a legal proceeding would look like,” said Young. “We meet actual people who are in jail for drugs, and they are there to tell us they have gotten clean, and whenever they are released, they will not go back because of the consequences they’ve faced.”

Sophia Langford, a sophomore at J. Graham Brown School (Jefferson County), said student support is an important part of preventing substance use among students.

“Sometimes students feel like they’re backed into a corner, and the only way left to go is down. So, I feel like we need to be encouraging students to realize that there is a way forward that does not have to result in substance abuse,” said Langford.

Vanderhaar said prevention efforts could include using current campaign resources to raise awareness in schools and to create supportive spaces and peer support circles for youth to safely and openly discuss substance pressures/usage.

“First of all, we need to focus on things that aren’t just going to stop kids from vaping at school specifically – stopping them vaping at all is the goal,” said Sophia Staples, a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (Fayette County). “Secondly, we need to focus on measures that aren’t going to punish the rest of the student body for the actions of a loud minority.”

Staples said she has to travel further to use the restroom because only a few restrooms are open to students due to the need for additional monitoring.

“It’s also important to engage student voices about their experiences so that our responses will be rooted in their experiences and not our thoughts of what is happening in their day-to-day lives,” Vanderhaar added.

Continuing Efforts to Collect Student Voice
KDE Chief Performance Officer Karen Dodd led council members through an activity that encouraged students to create an audio recording of student voices to be presented during the Kentucky United We Learn Council meeting on April 25.

“We want to take advantage of you all here and do what we can to hear from you and to allow you to pull in other student voices,” said Dodd.

The audio recordings will be a part of the Kentucky United We Learn Council’s Community Voice Project.

“We want to reach a wider range of students, a broader view of the state and we want to reach more families and community members,” said Gretchen Morgan with the Center for Innovation in Education, an innovation partner with KDE.

Student council members partnered up and recorded one-minute audio recordings of their thoughts and opinions on a range of questions, such as sharing a time the students felt excited about what they were learning in the classroom.

“Hearing from students is what we need to hear more from in the Kentucky United We Learn Council,” said Morgan. 

Student council members were encouraged to talk to other students within their schools who are not a part of the council about these topics and capture their voices for this project.

Student Voice: The Student, Teacher and Administrator perspective
Each year student council members take on a project, including topics such as school safety and student mental health. This year, members decided to amplify student voices by interviewing education stakeholder groups about the importance of student voices. At the meeting, council members presented their findings from their year-long exploration of the topic.

“Student voice is all about giving students a say in the decisions that affect their lives. It means empowering students to share their ideas, perspectives and concerns,” said Young.

Raima Dutt, a senior at DuPont Manual High School (Jefferson County) and chair of the council, said that student voices play an important role in student advocacy and create a space for dialogue between students and stakeholders.

She said the importance of student voice is to empower diverse perspectives and develop relationships, fostering numerous benefits for educational outcomes and allowing students to be included in relevant decision-making opportunities.

“Our council leaders introduced this idea of student voice and we opened up the floor to all of our members to express their thoughts on it. What we saw was that there was an overwhelming amount of support for exploring this idea and wanting to see more student voice,” said Dutt.

The council’s report was based on five questions the council created to ask educational stakeholders:

  • What is your definition of student voice?
  • Why is student voice important in education?
  • What current initiatives are underway to increase student voice?
  • How do you feel that meaningful student voice could be implicated in education?
  • What, if anything, holds you back from inputting student voice into decisions in your school/community?

“During our project, we’ve seen the power of student voice in action. We’ve heard from students, staff and administrators and their viewpoints, so although our project is coming to an end, this is just the beginning of the conversation,” said Young.

Young said she hopes to continue seeing advances in student voice, including advocacy for more space for all student perspectives via student voice in the education system.

The council adjourned for the school year. New student advisory members will come together again in the fall of 2024.