Today's Topic



Students Get Credit
for Marching

Natalia J. Garland

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The 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 school.

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.

Volunteer 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.

Community service 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 necessary.
  • 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 the community.

Regarding political 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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2006 Natalia J. Garland