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April 20, 2004 - The Oakland Tribune (CA)

Student Addresses Legislators

By Chris De Benedetti

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

For Amanda Gelender, testifying before state senators in Sacramento last month was a thrill she will never forget. And perhaps the legislators she addressed felt the same way, as the Castro Valley High School junior brought a jolt of infectious energy to the proceedings, said Glenn Backes, director of health policy of Drug Policy Alliance.

Praising the 17-year-old for her composure and intelligence, Backes added that Gelender's enthusiasm re-engaged legislators on the Education Commitee who "were starting to drift" after hours of testimony.

"(Gelender) came on like a house on fire and (the legislators) lifted their heads," he said, when reached Friday at his Sacramento office. "She handled not just her own testimony, but the questions from the senators, with grace and aplomb."

Gelender recently started an on-campus chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which advocates for students' rights on campus drug policies, said Sue Anderson, a Castro Valley High School teacher and the club's adviser.

In Sacramento, Gelender joined Backes and other Drug Policy Alliance representatives in supporting state Senate Bill 1836. The proposed legislation sponsored by Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-San Jose, would ban random drug testing of California students.

Drug Policy Alliance is a lobbying group calling for drug policies based on compassion, health, science and human rights.

"I'll always vividly remember it," Gelender said of her testimony. "It's so rare to have a high school student testify in front of the state (Legislature). Just being in Sacramento and in the Capitol Building was really, really exciting."

Vasconcellos' bill runs counter to the efforts of people such as David Evans, a New Jersey parent spearheading a movement to randomly test high school students for drugs.

At Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, N.J., Evans has helped institute random drug testing of students involved in extracurricular activities. Under the program's terms, any student testing positive for drugs may lose the opportunity to participate in school activities, such as athletics or cheerleading.

"When the program started, there was a substantial reduction of drug use throughout the school," Evans said when reached by phone. "I believe (the program) helps the kids. It gives them a reason to stay drug free."

Gelender disagrees.

"Random drug testing is basically an invasion of privacy, and it undermines student-teacher trust," said Gelender, who also is president for on-campus chapters of Amnesty International and the Junior Statesmen of America.

Political affairs are not Gelender's only passion. In addition to her studies and school club leadership, she often performs with the school's drama department.

"Musical theater is one of my loves," she said.

Gelender also volunteers for counseling other students in the school's Peer Support Services and in conflict mediation sessions. Her academic record, meanwhile, has earned her a membership in the California Scholarship Federation.

Even with this level of achievement, Gelender's recent trip to Sacramento is a source of pride for those closest to her.

"It's really amazing and such an honor," said Karen Gelender, Amanda's mother. "I was thrilled about it."

Amanda's older siblings, former Castro Valley students Shayna and Jake, also have been active in local political issues.

"I'm really happy for Amanda, and for all of my kids, that they are passionate and care deeply about justice," Karen Gelender said. "When they see something is wrong, they ask themselves the question, 'What can I do to help?' And then they act on that. That makes for a more fulfilling life than not caring about what's going on."

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