When Virginia’s largest school district began allowing students time off to protest in 2019, the backlash was swift and partisan: Conservative critics denounced Fairfax County Public Schools for coddling its too liberal, too sensitive youths and predicted kids would abuse the policy to play hooky.

A year later, though, the Virginia General Assembly is poised to pass legislation that will take Fairfax’s policy statewide, permitting more than 680,000 middle and high school students across 130-plus school systems one excused absence every year to “engage in a civic event.” Remarkably for a hyperpartisan era, the historic bill has garnered bipartisan support — and it’s all due to a collaboration between a handful of teenagers from both sides of the aisle.

It began with a one-word private message on Twitter in late December.

“Sup,” wrote the Teenage Republican Federation of Virginia at 3:21 p.m.

Adrian Klaits, 15-year-old vice chair of the Virginia Young Democrats Teen Caucus, recalled momentary panic as his group struggled to craft a reply that would “keep it professional.” They sent their answer exactly a minute later: “We may disagree on issues, but it’s great that both of us energize students to get involved in the political process.”

The Republican account reacted to the message with a big red heart. The exchange marked the start of an unprecedented partnership that would swell to involve joint letter-writing campaigns, strategic targeting of Virginia legislators — the Teen Republicans developed talking points targeted to conservative lawmakers — and, last month, the unusual sight of teenagers sporting Democratic and Republican gear testifying one after another in favor of the same bill during Virginia House hearings.

“We don’t get to see that a lot,” said Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke), who introduced the bill in the House after the teens approached him. “Talk about a feel-good story, especially during these difficult times.”

The bill passed the House in late January, with eight Republicans crossing the aisle to join most of their Democratic colleagues and vote in favor, 62 to 37. The bill passed 25 to 14 in the Senate on Wednesday with bipartisan support, although it will return to the House for another vote — before it crosses Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk — because senators adjusted its wording.

“This is an important initiative,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky wrote in a statement on Northam’s behalf, “and a great example of the power and purpose of our young people.”

The young people who pushed the bill are ecstatic.

“We got more Republican support than we were expecting,” said Josh Lyon, 19, who serves as recording secretary for the Teen Republicans.

“This is just a really good bill that will energize students on all sides of the political spectrum,” Matthew Savage, the 17-year-old chair of the Young Democrats, said.

How it came together

The bill, and the story of how it came together, has special resonance as the country continues to reel from the violent insurrection that took place in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, said Thai Jones, a lecturer at Columbia University who studies radical social movements.

One response to the Capitol riot would be to “clamp down on all forms of dissent and protest,” Jones said. He noted adults in Washington have already done that, turning the nation’s capital into a militarized fortress filled with barbed-wire fencing, closed-off streets and thousands of armed and camouflaged National Guard troops.

“But it seems to me that the teens are pursuing a much more enlightened and productive response,” Jones said. “I hope that all of us will be able to learn from these teenagers.”

When Ryan McElveen, a former member of the Fairfax County School Board, proposed the county’s excused-absence rule in 2019, he hoped to accommodate a wave of student activism concerning climate change and gun violence, the latter spurred by the 2018 shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school.

The policy isn’t just meant to allow kids to protest, McElveen said. It is specifically worded to encompass all kinds of civic activities, including lobbying legislators and interning in political offices.

So McElveen was dismayed when support and opposition to his policy at first broke along partisan lines, with conservatives interpreting it as just the latest leftist excess.

“The fact that it’s now come together across the political aisle is exactly what I would have hoped for,” he said. “The point I tried to make a year-plus ago . . . is that this is not for liberal causes or conservative causes — it’s for all causes.”

That is partly what appealed to Del. Hyland F. “Buddy” Fowler Jr. (R-Hanover), who broke party ranks to vote for the bill in the House. In an interview, he said he does not see the policy as “a partisan thing.” He said the legislation will allow students holding all kinds of political views to engage in the democratic process, rendering them better citizens and better able to give back to their communities.

Plus, he liked that teenagers from both parties joined forces to advocate for the bill and made time to testify in its favor.

“These students were getting engaged in the political process and making their views apparent to the members that represent them,” Fowler said. “That’s kind of what this bill is all about.”

McElveen called it “poetic” that some of the teenage testifiers who attend Fairfax County Public Schools actually used their one-day excused absence to speak before lawmakers — as did Savage, of the Young Democrats.

“I was about 30 minutes late to econ,” Savage said.

Should local leaders decide?

Other Republicans, though, insist that an overarching statewide policy on excused absences will trample on the rights of county officials.

Del. G. John Avoli (R-Staunton) argued during committee discussions that school boards should be able to decide what counts as an excused absence. He voted against the bill in committee and again on the House floor.

Although Avoli said in an interview that he respects the opinions of fellow Republicans who favor the bill, he also believes they are violating a tenet of conservative ideology: that government should take place “at the local level.”

“How in the world can we legislate what is an excused or unexcused absence?” Avoli said. “It’s absolutely incredible [and] an example of micromanagement. . . . You can’t take away the authority and flexibility of a local elected school board.”

Del. Glenn R. Davis (R-Virginia Beach), who is running for lieutenant governor, rebutted Avoli’s assertions during committee debates. He had been a particular target of the students’ lobbying, and their hard work paid off.

“I had an experience a long time ago,” Davis said during a committee hearing, “where students were given extra credit in government class when they went and worked the polls . . . for the teachers’ associations — [but] when they asked for that same opportunity to hand out stuff for those not supported by the teachers’ association, they were denied.”

“So I have a little concern having [this policy decided] at the local level,” he concluded.

In an interview, Davis said the bill was not on his radar until the teenagers contacted him. He said their enthusiasm, and cross-party cooperation, convinced him to back it.

“With all the tension we’re seeing in politics today, it’s great to see that next generation work together,” he said.

An idea out of nowhere

The Young Democrats came up with the idea for the bill over the summer, when Savage had an epiphany while poring over education-related legislation proposed for the 2020 legislative session. For no particular reason, he suddenly recalled the Fairfax excused-absence policy — then imagined what it would be like to take that statewide.

“The idea came out of nowhere,” Savage said. Fellow Democrats were quick to sign on: “Adrian [Klaits] and I and a few other people started writing a resolution like in the middle of the night that night.”

Savage and the Young Democrats contacted Del. Rasoul, and his enthusiastic reception left them feeling confident they could win Democratic lawmakers to their cause. But they were less sure how to rally Republican support — until the fateful Twitter exchange in late December. (The Republicans reached out, Josh Lyon said, mostly out of curiosity: They wanted to see how their counterparts would respond.)

Soon after teaming up, the teens decided to divide and conquer.

The Teen Republicans worked to develop talking points, Chairman Brady Hillis said, which they sent to dozens of conservative legislators ahead of the January launch of the Virginia legislative session. In the document, the students argued that leaving the decision on excused absences to individual school boards would allow liberal-leaning officials to deny conservative children the chance to participate in events such as the March for Life — while giving other students permission to attend Black Lives Matter protests or similar demonstrations.

Hillis also emailed lawmakers with a personal plea, pitching the bill as a way to entice more young people, who tend to skew liberal, into the Republican fold.

“I experience on a daily basis how out of touch the party’s leadership is with the younger generation,” Hillis wrote in one email to a House delegate. “I hope you share my concerns with getting younger generations involved with our party.”

State Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who is co-sponsoring the bill in the Virginia Senate, said he decided to sponsor the bill after spotting it among Rasoul’s list of proposed laws and liking it.

Surovell said he expected the bill to clear the Senate with little trouble — and some Republican support.

“I didn’t know any of the backstory of the bill,” Surovell said, “but I feel like we need to do everything we can to encourage our children to pay attention and engage in civic activism right now.”

The teens say they are tracking every twist.

But they are also enjoying new friendships that go beyond politics: Conversation in a recently established “Teen Dems + Republicans” group chat sometimes ranges to “just talking about football,” said Lyon, the Teen Republicans’ recording secretary.

“We found a lot more in common than we previously thought,” said Klaits, of the Young Democrats.

And they want to do it again — immediately. They have already identified the next piece of legislation they want to lobby for together, a bill that would allow 16-year-olds to preregister to vote when obtaining a driver’s permit or license.

Hillis said he hopes legislative advocacy becomes an annual Teen Republicans-Young Democrats tradition.

He also hopes the adults are watching.

“I think it’s a good lesson for the people we’re testifying in front of,” Hillis said. “To show that, if we can do it, you can do it, too.”