Montgomery County schools, located in Maryland, are permitting
students to receive community service credits for participating
in the April 10th immigration march on the Washington D.C.
mall. Students in Montgomery County were on their spring break
during that week. Maryland students are required to accumulate
60 hours of community service in order to graduate from high
What is community
service? Community service is intended to enable young people to
have a positive impact on their community. Usually, students
become involved with hospitals and nursing homes, food banks and
soup kitchens, animal shelters, or tutoring younger children.
Students can volunteer for non-profit organizations such as the
American Red Cross and Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Some schools
such as those in Montgomery County approve service only to
secular organizations, while other schools also permit service
to religious organizations.
experience is supposed to provide students with a more rounded
education, combining academics with unselfish service to others.
Community service promotes understanding and tolerance,
interaction with diverse peoples, a sense of responsibility and
pride, and exploration of possible career choices. Service is
also intended to fulfill a need in the community. One of the best
definitions of community service can be found at the website of
the Rotary Club.
responds to the needs of a local community. Rotary clubs should
determine top priorities for service projects by first learning
about a community's needs and assets, and then developing a
response that addresses them.
An effective service project:
Responds to a real issue, not an imagined one.
Improves the lives of community members.
Incorporates the abilities of those who are served.
Recognizes all participants' contributions as important and
Comes from a realistic assessment of resources available.
Aims for specific goals and objectives with measurable results.
Builds a working network.
Now, some schools
permit volunteering for a political party or on behalf of a
political candidate. The Montgomery County schools permit
"political advocacy." A school official, Steve Abrams,
stated that political advocacy could also include other types of
protests, such as a right-to-life demonstration or a pro-choice
demonstration. He also clarified that participation in a
political protest cannot take place during school time. Hence,
the inclusion of the April 10th immigration march among the
school-approved opportunities for community service.
Under the Montgomery
County school specifications, it would be difficult to argue
against giving credit to students who marched against immigration
reform as a way to fulfill part of their community service
requirement. Any argument would have to be pushed back to the
school specifications, with an evaluation of whether political
advocacy fits the definition of community service.
Are the school
specifications too broad? Should high school students be
protesting in the streets, even for a good cause? Joining a
protest march is a different experience from serving meals to the
homeless or helping to transport elderly patients in a nursing
home. No personal relationship is developed and no skills are
learned. Marches depend on large numbers of people. The
political message is carried by sheer numbers. Perhaps speeches
are given, and the speeches might be inspiring and eloquent, but
listening to a speech is not the same as performing a service to
affiliation, volunteering to work for a political campaign might
have educational value. A student would have a better chance to
meet people knowledgeable of the political party's inner workings
in the local community, and to perform a task that would more
likely have direct results. Having this experience with America's
two-party system, even within a third party, could prepare the
young person for civic responsibility in adult life. This type
of activity might be more appropriate as a project in history
or government classes, rather than as community service.
It would be
interesting to read the students' written reports of the
immigration march (or of any protest march), because they would
have to stretch and twist their experience to measure up to
anything like the Rotary Club criteria. What lessons did they
learn? In what way were they more than a body to be counted in
the statistics and reported on the evening news?
Protest marches are
obvious examples of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
Should students be given credit simply for exercising their
Constitutional rights? The key word is service. If one
student marches in a right-to-life demonstration, and another
student in a pro-choice demonstration, then the concept of service
becomes politically debatable. Neither student would define the
other's work as service! Helping a third-grader learn to read,
however, is unquestionably of benefit to the child and to the
whole community. This requires a genuine personal investment.
Do parents want
their children to learn political advocacy in school? Is a
protest march a form of political advocacy or political activism?
Protest marches are aggressive by definition. This is not to say
that marches are good or bad, but only that marches might not be
a proper form of learning for high school students. What if the
student gets pepper-sprayed or arrested? How will parents react
if their child is locked in jail overnight because of his
participation in a school-approved activity? Who is responsible?
This sounds like potential lawsuit material.
High schools should
teach academics, including music and the arts. Let young people
study and do research, learn critical thinking, learn debating
skills, but keep them off the streets. High school students have
various levels of maturity, but they all still need adult
supervision and protection. Soon enough, they will carry the
weight of the world on their shoulders. Let them have a chance to
grow up first. (Written 04/17/06: bibliography available.)
Until we meet