Standing Up

A young activist from Bethesda lobbied for a change in the county schools’ health curriculum

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Maeve Sanford-Kelly, a freshman at Walter Johnson, helped push for legislation requiring MCPS to teach middle and high school students about consent. Photo by Laura Chase de Formigny.

 

Maeve Sanford-Kelly was 5 years old when she first participated in a protest, holding a homemade sign and a big inflatable duck as she stood outside a 2010 trade association conference for chemical companies in Baltimore with her mom and others who were objecting to toxic chemicals in children’s toys.

“I feel like [most weekends] in my childhood we were doing something,” says Maeve, now 14, who often tagged along with her mom, Ariana Kelly, a former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland who now represents District 16, which includes Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac, in the Maryland House of Delegates.

When Maeve was 4, she and her mom waited in line for two hours to attend a rally in Bowie for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Kelly says she took Maeve because she wanted her daughter to experience “the historic nature of Hillary’s campaign.” In third grade, Maeve read Clinton’s 2003 memoir, Living History, before donning a navy blue pantsuit, modeling Clinton’s style of dress, to portray her for a school project.

“I was always making the connection between things that were happening and people that were doing them. I think that’s sort of what politics is,” says Maeve, who has stamped envelopes, knocked on doors and handed out flyers at Metro stations during her mom’s delegate campaigns.

The Bethesda teen campaigned for Clinton in Pennsylvania during her 2016 presidential run and was particularly disappointed when Donald Trump won, especially because voters chose him even though several women had accused him of inappropriate behavior. The experience left Maeve feeling that the voices of girls and women didn’t matter.

Her mother suggested they take action. Now, a little more than two years later, students in Maryland’s public middle schools and high schools are learning about consent in health class, in part because of the efforts of Maeve, now a freshman at Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School.

Those efforts began in late 2016 when Kelly and other lawmakers proposed legislation that would require Montgomery County Public Schools to teach students about consent. Maeve and her friends campaigned in favor of the bill, and she argued during a public hearing in Rockville held by the Montgomery County legislative delegation that lessons about respect and consent should be taught alongside pregnancy prevention and abstinence beginning in middle school.

The delegation supported the bill, which was soon expanded to cover all Maryland public schools, but the proposal stalled in the state Senate during the 2017 General Assembly session.

“Once we lost, it felt obvious to me to try it again,” Maeve says.

In 2017, Montgomery County Public Schools and Baltimore City Public Schools voluntarily implemented the bill’s requirements. Meanwhile, Maeve and other students again lobbied for passage of the legislation, which the General Assembly approved last year. Gov. Larry Hogan signed it into law in May.

Since Maryland adopted the legislation, students elsewhere have contacted Maeve to ask about replicating her efforts. “Maeve is very articulate and a great public speaker, which helped gain momentum for this issue,” Kelly says.

At Walter Johnson, Maeve participates in student government, the Young Democrats club, and MoCo for Change, a student group that formed last year to advocate for gun control and has since expanded to include other issues. She lobbies with the Montgomery County Regional Student Government Association, which is promoting proposed state legislation to expand voter registration and access to mental health services in schools.

“I have no ability in my brain to comprehend not being active. To me, the entire world that I live in is based on the policies that affect me and the laws that govern my life,” Maeve says. “The idea that I wouldn’t be trying to make them the best they can possibly be—I can’t comprehend not trying to do that.”

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