State lawmakers, a teacher and a toddler's relatives all stood on the podium Monday, urging high school students to become grass-roots advocates for new state legislation named for a 2-year-old Kenmore boy.
But approximately 65 seniors at John F. Kennedy High School in Cheektowaga couldn't help notice the real star of the event, 2-year-old Jay J. Bolvin.
The toddler banged repeatedly on piano keys, walked behind the podium in his uneven gait and even uttered a few nonverbal screams, as the adults talked about the boy who has inspired what would become Jay J.'s Law.
As an infant, Jay J. was abused severely and repeatedly by his father. Advocates for the developmentally delayed boy say that he has received a life sentence, while his father was sentenced to only 1 1/3 to 4 years in prison.
That's why two Democrats, State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy of Buffalo and Assemblyman Dennis H. Gabryszak of Cheektowaga, have sponsored a bill that would provide much stiffer penalties for repeat child abusers, such as Jay J.'s father.
Gabryszak and Kennedy stood before the JFK students in Colin Brinson's Advanced Placement government classes, urging them to become advocates for the bill. They asked the kids to send emails and letters to state lawmakers, especially those on the two chambers' Codes committees; to post Facebook items; to make phone calls; and to talk up the need for the legislation.
"The best way to advance legislation that's going to have such an [impact] on society is by telling the story of Jay J. and the tragic abuse this young boy had to endure, and the ramifications he will live through for the rest of his life," Kennedy told the seniors.
Kennedy and Gabryszak gave the students a brief lesson in lawmaking, explaining that the bill already has 12 co-sponsors in the Senate and 59 in the Assembly and that public pressure could help get the bill out of the Codes committees.
Kevin Retzer, Jay J.'s great-uncle, who had custody of the boy for eight months with his wife, Christine, has helped spearhead the legislation.
"For the life of me, I can't understand why it's not moving," he told the students.
If legislative inertia is the answer, then the students can provide the key to break open the logjam.
"Getting legislation passed is all about momentum," Kennedy said. "We're asking you to help build that momentum."
The students clearly got the message about the human cost of child abuse as embodied by Jay J.
"You see the effect right in front of you, and you see how his future isn't going to be perfect, because someone hurt him," said Stacy Kochanowski, 17.
And James Quinn, another 17-year-old, said that seeing Jay J. was much different from hearing about child abuse on the news or reading it in the newspaper.
"With Jay J. here, we got to see it firsthand and see how bad the abuse was," he said.