Student human rights official leaves her mark on commission


Vastoria Edmondson wanted to leave her mark in Howard County before setting out for college in Virginia next week.

Graduating from Oakland Mills High School and being named the Outstanding African American Senior was a plus, as was receiving a $100 award from the county's Peace, Justice and Community Builders organization.

But Vastoria, 17, decided to make a connection between students and the issue of human rights. She used her position as the student member of the county's Human Rights Commission to develop a new student advisory council to the commission.

Under Vastoria's plan, the student panel would include a representative from each of the county's eight public high schools and one from the county's School of Technology. The students would forward complaints to the Human Rights Commission's student member.

"I know, as a student, I wouldn't be anxious to say I've been discriminated against," she said. "I bet students would rather go to a council of their peers, but I may be wrong."

The 11-member Human Rights Commission, whose members are appointed by the county executive and serve five-year terms, investigates human rights complaints in the county. The commission can propose legislation and conduct public hearings.

Commission Chairwoman Jan Nyquist said she has already forwarded a request to formalize the student advisory council to County Executive Charles I. Ecker, and the proposal will be presented to the County Council next week.

Vastoria said although the commission gave her the green light to pursue her idea immediately after she proposed it in November, "it was a rather drawn-out process because I didn't have the cooperation of all the schools."

She credited Oakland Mills High School Principal David Bruzga with enlisting help from other principals.

"We encourage all of [Oakland Mills] students to take an active part in community service," Mr. Bruzga said. "Vastoria is very conscientious. She takes her responsibility seriously, and I hope other students follow in her footsteps."

Vastoria said she has contacted the nine student representatives, who will meet for the first time while attending her last Human Rights Commission session Thursday night. Mr. Ecker is scheduled to present her with a certificate for her work with the commission and for developing the advisory council.

"I was looking forward to doing something to leave a mark," she said. "I feel good because I started something that will be carried on."

Vastoria, the second non-voting student representative to serve on the Human Rights Commission, will end her yearlong term next month. Any student on any grade level may apply for the position.

"We hoped student members would be able to exercise initiative, and Vastoria used her initiative very well," said James Henson, administrator for the county's Office of Human Rights and a commission board member.

"It took leadership to form the advisory council. She indicated early on it was something she wanted to do," he said.

Mr. Henson said one of Vastoria's other noticeable efforts was taking an active part in discussions about giving the public advance notice of hearings on discrimination cases.

"Legislation is being proposed that will enable the commission to publish discrimination hearing dates," he said.

As a member of First Baptist Church of Guilford on Oakland Mills Road, which Mr. Henson also attends, Vastoria is a member of the youth choir, the mass choir and the teen usher board.

She is also an active member in the county's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's youth program.

Commissioner Edmondson, as Mr. Henson calls Vastoria, is an excellent role model to other students, he said.

"She has a strong interest in improving the human relations climate in the county," he added.

Vastoria said her interest in the commission was sparked when the student member position was announced over her school's intercom last year.

"I was looking for something to do in the community since I wasn't involved in any extracurricular activities at school," she said.

Vastoria will attend Hampton University in Hampton, Va., to study business, which was her father's college major.

"Hampton is the only school I applied to. It's the only college I really wanted to go to," said Vastoria, who is getting a head start in the university's summer session that begins Monday.

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