MCPS To Consider Allowing Excused Absences for Civic Activism
The new policy would apply to high schoolers, following last year’s walkouts to call for more gun control
Students from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School at a gun control rally in Washington, D.C. on March 14.
The Montgomery County Board of Education is considering allowing county high school students to be excused up to three times per year to participate in “civic engagement activities.”
To be excused, a student would have to present the school with written permission from a parent and the organization sponsoring the event that a student wants to attend. The principal of the school that a student attends would also have to give permission, according to the proposed policy.
Patricia O’Neill, who chairs the board’s Policy Management Committee, sent the proposal in a memo to the other board members in preparation for their meeting Tuesday afternoon.
In an interview before the meeting, O’Neill said the idea for the policy arose from a series of school walkouts that students at county high schools participated in following the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Students who participated in those demonstrations, aimed at advocating for gun control, were told that their absences could be considered unexcused.
O’Neill said the new policy would not excuse students from similar “spontaneous” protests such as the post-Parkland ones, or walkouts that followed President Donald Trump’s election in November 2016. O’Neill said MCPS remains liable for students when they leave campus without permission during the school day.
“If students were hit by a car during our watch, we’re responsible,” she said. “We do not want civic engagement to be disruptive to the day or imperil student safety.”
Under the new policy, MCPS would not be responsible for students’ safety, once a parent and sponsoring organization has signed off participation in an activity.
O’Neill said any political activities approved by MCPS must be “viewpoint neutral,” meaning that they do not advocate a partisan cause. She said the litmus test for any protest is whether there is a sponsoring organization.
“Is it a legitimately recognized group that’s organizing this?” she said would be a question for principals.
But when asked whether there were universal standards to determine what constituted a “legitimately organized group,” O’Neill said the best practice would be for principals to consult MCPS’s Office of School Support and Improvement.
MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said that under the current rules regarding excused absences, principals may approve individual requests from parents and students at their discretion. However, the rules state that requests for family travel are generally “not considered lawful.”
MCPS visited the issue of students who missed school for civic activism in 2009, O’Neill said, when a number of students and families expressed a wish to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration, which was to occur during the school day. The system closed in response.
“And we said we would be closed in all subsequent inaugurations, regardless of who the president was,” she said.
O’Neill said following Tuesday’s meeting, there will be a 30-day period for public comments before the board takes action on the proposed policy.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org