Meet Our Candidates: Daniel Hernandez Jr. for Sunnyside Unified School Board

The Arizona general election will be held on November 4, 2014, and early voting is already underway! Reproductive health care access has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive justice. To acquaint you with our endorsed candidates, we are running a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” Make your voice heard in 2014!

Daniel Hernandez[E]xtending from south Tucson to Sahuarita and from I-19 to Wilmot Road, Sunnyside Unified School District includes 14 elementary schools, five middle schools, and three high schools. Its student body, which totals 17,400, comprises an overwhelming majority of Hispanic students. In this year’s election cycle, three candidates are vying for two open spots on Sunnyside Unified’s school board. One of these candidates is Daniel Hernandez Jr., up for reelection for the first time since taking office in 2011.

Currently the acting president of the governing board, Hernandez was once a student in Sunnyside Unified School District. Although he is not even 25 years old, Hernandez already boasts incredible political experience. He has worked for numerous congressional campaigns, and he passed his first bill at 19 years old. After the shooting at U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” event, where he was working as an intern, Hernandez felt compelled to give back to the public by running for office. Since 2011, he has been a passionate advocate for students as a member of Sunnyside’s board. He hopes to maintain his position so that he may continue to improve public education in Arizona.

On October 23, Mr. Hernandez took time out of his busy schedule to meet me for coffee and discuss the issues surrounding the upcoming election.

“I’m hoping to work with next year’s board members to make sure that comprehensive sex ed becomes solidified in policy.”

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a Tucson native. I grew up on the south side in Sunnyside Unified School District, which is the district where I am now the president. I was born in the 1990s so I’m a little on the young side, but I’ve already had a lot of interesting experiences working in public policy and politics.

My first foray into politics was back in 2007 working on the Hillary for President campaign. I then worked on Gabby Gifford’s campaign for Congress, which led me to spend a lot of time thinking about the influence of policy. After her campaign ended in 2008, I became part of the Arizona Students’ Association, which works to make sure that students have all the resources they need to be successful. We have three public universities in Arizona (ASU, NAU, and U of A), and I was part of a team that represented all 150,000 students in the university system. I lobbied at the Legislature and got my first bill passed when I was 19.

It was really exciting because it was something that I never thought I would be able to do, coming from the south side of Tucson and from parents who were never involved politically. My dad hadn’t voted in about 20 years prior to the 2008 election, and my mom is not a U.S. citizen; she’s a permanent resident alien. The bill I passed was a bill that required universities to provide space for county recorders to set up early polling locations, so it emphasized the importance of voting among young people. It also required universities and students to work together to create online voter registration, mobilization, and education drives to get more young people involved in a nonpartisan way.

My work with Arizona Students’ Association led me to [then] state House candidate Steve Farley. I was his campaign manager in 2010, and that’s when I started working a lot more closely with folks involved in Planned Parenthood. Right after the 2010 election, I started working as an intern in Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ Office. Three days into the internship, we got a phone call that Congresswoman Giffords wanted to do a “Congress on your Corner,” which she did every couple of months to meet with voters one-on-one. I was asked if I’d be willing to help with the event, and I said “of course.” Five days later was the shooting that resulted in the death of six people and the injury of 13 others.

After the shooting, I wanted to continue to be involved, and in 2011 a spot opened up on Sunnyside’s board. I was elected to the board in a special election, not long after graduating from high school. I am the youngest board member that we’ve had so far. I was the youngest openly LGBT candidate in the country to be elected that year, and for a couple of months I was the youngest openly LGBT elected official.

It’s been an interesting journey in the Sunnyside School District. I faced a recall effort where they tried to remove me because I asked too many questions and made lots of comments. I was asked to resign because I like transparency and accountability, and there are a lot of issues that I care about that I wanted to tackle. A lot of the things that I would have liked to have done three years ago are just now getting off the ground, but now that I’m board president I hope to begin implementing changes and programs that I believe in.

Arizona Mayors released a report stating that high school dropouts cost the state $7.6 billion over the course of their lifetime. What do you think about the connection between teenage pregnancy and high-school dropout rates?

Unfortunately, I think the reality has been for a very long time that if a young woman becomes pregnant, there aren’t many programs in most districts to help keep her in school. She is told to either go get a GED, or to take time off and then come back after having the child. Sunnyside has had parent programs at our high schools for about 10 years. These programs are extremely important because they try and make sure that young women who are pregnant don’t lose any time in terms of their schooling.

Someone who gets a high school diploma and a college degree will earn more money and rely less on public assistance programs than someone who does not. We have made a commitment to working with young mothers to help them achieve these goals. In our district, we have parenting classes to give them the resources that they need, and also to provide a mental support system to help them with the transition to parenthood. Our parent programs have childcare available, which means that a mother doesn’t have to leave her newborn in a daycare center 20 minutes away. Ultimately, having these programs helps teenage mothers be more successful as both students and parents.

We’re hopeful that by expanding sexuality education programs in our high schools, in addition to maintaining our parent programs, we can help prevent teen pregnancies from happening. If we can prevent 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds from having children through sex ed, we don’t need to worry about teaching them to be good parents. Instead, we can focus on their academic careers, and make sure that they’re in the best place possible when they do choose to have children.

Does your school district offer its students age-appropriate, scientifically accurate, comprehensive sexuality education? Do you think the current policy can be improved?

It can definitely be improved upon. Sunnyside is a mix of some really progressive things, and some, like sex ed, that are not progressive at all. I think the fact that we have a parent program in our high schools is great. However, if you look at what we’re teaching, we don’t have comprehensive sex ed in any shape or form — we have abstinence-only education provided by an outside organization that we partner with in the community. And, while that organization means well, it’s not realistic to expect teenagers not to have sex.

So our current program needs significant improvements. I’ve been trying to get sex ed reform off the ground for the last three years, but because I’ve been in the minority, I haven’t been able to do so. My fellow board members would respond with questions like, “Why do you want to teach students to have sex?”

It’s a misconception that comprehensive sex education, which includes everything from STIs to basic reproductive organs, makes teens more likely to have sex. Now that I am board president, I’m hoping to begin having conversations about sex education as soon as possible.

According to current Arizona law (ARS 15-176), no school district that includes HIV/AIDS education in their curricula may use instruction that “promotes a homosexual life-style,” “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style,” or “suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.” Do you think such an approach is in the best interest of students?

I think this is very similar to the “slut shaming” conversation that is going on around the country. When we shame people for who they are or what they’re doing, it makes it really difficult for us to help prevent serious problems. HIV and other STIs are still very serious, even though they can now be managed as chronic illnesses. When we don’t provide students with information that is reasonable, and that is backed up by scientific facts, it becomes nearly impossible to prevent things like HIV and pregnancy.

These policies [about HIV] reflect the difficulty we face operating in the state of Arizona. Our state legislature is very reactionary, and many of the laws that get passed are written by people who are not aware of the real information about the issues. It functions in a hyper-polarized reality: Radio talk show hosts claiming that “all gay people have AIDS” carry extreme influence. I think this has really been a detriment to people here in Arizona. A lot of people are now stuck with HIV simply because they never learned about safe sex in high school. Nobody ever told them about how to use condoms or lubricant correctly.

So there are a lot of things that I think we’re doing wrong in Arizona. Foremost amongst these is not using scientific data to try and prevent illnesses. Illnesses like HIV end up becoming a huge problem for the state, because many STI patients are on the state Medicaid system. State taxpayers end up paying, even though a comprehensive sexual education program could have avoided the problem in the first place. A small investment in condoms and safe sex can prevent thousands of dollars in treatment.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, a bill that would have allowed discrimination against LGBTQ individuals based on religious beliefs. Similarly, Tucson Unified School District amended its nondiscrimination policy to include protections for transgender students and employees. Given the discrimination that LGBTQ Arizonans still face, how would you help your district protect its students from bullying and harassment based on gender identity and sexual orientation?

Sunnyside has actually had a much more progressive policy for protecting discrimination against students and staff than any other school district in Pima County, and possibly in Arizona. We have had protections for sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression for more than 10 years.

Going back to what I said earlier, there are a lot of contradictions in our district. We have all these protections for our students and staff on paper, but depending on who has been on the board, they haven’t always been a practical reality.

We were recently redoing some of our policies, and last year there was some talk about eliminating some of the protections that we had fought so hard to get into the handbook. I worked to keep the protections there. I’m not sure that they can go any further, because they’re almost the “Cadillac” of anti-discrimination policy for students and staff. That being said, we need to be vigilant, and we need to be aware that this could change at a minute’s notice depending on who is elected to office.

I am glad that we have the protections that we do in our district. I actually worked with state Rep. Demion Clinco, the only openly gay member of the House, to write an op-ed urging Gov. Brewer to veto SB 1062. But I think the bill is a constant reminder that we can never take things for granted. By the time most people realized SB 1062 had passed the state Legislature, it was already on its way to the governor’s desk. We need to be ready at any time to stand up and defend anti-discrimination policies.

Why was it important for you to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona?

I haven’t applied for many endorsements. In Sunnyside School District, which has very low voter turnout, endorsements generally don’t matter as much as knocking on doors and speaking with voters. But, for me personally, the endorsement was important because of the work that I’ve been trying to do on comprehensive sex education, and because my values align so closely with those of Planned Parenthood.

I also thought it was imperative that, after I secured the endorsement, I start working together with the organization. Last night [October 22] there was a great movie screening of Let’s Talk About Sex put on by Planned Parenthood Arizona. I wasn’t able to attend the whole event because I had a board meeting, but I made sure that we had a staff member from the curriculum and instruction department there to represent the school district.

We need to start working on sex ed policy sooner rather than later, because if we don’t, our students will continue to be misinformed. That’s why, for me, reaching out to Planned Parenthood was so important. I’m hoping to work with next year’s board members to make sure that comprehensive sex ed becomes solidified in policy. This way, our students will protected even when I’m gone.

Want to learn more about Daniel Hernandez Jr.? Visit his website or follow him on Twitter!