Montgomery Is Criticized Over Credit for Students

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 8, 2006

The Montgomery County schools' decision to grant students community service credit for attending Monday's immigration rights protest is raising concern among some parents as well as activists who say officials should focus on education, not political advocacy.

Montgomery is the only Washington area school system offering students credit for taking part in the event, to be held on the Mall -- a decision Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said is consistent with how the system has operated.

"This is nothing new,'' schools spokesman Brian K. Edwards said about the decision. "Advocacy is allowed."

But in the superheated atmosphere surrounding the immigration debate, the decision is drawing sharp criticism from many quarters. Yesterday, school system offices were flooded with angry phone calls as word of its action circulated among conservative radio hosts.

In a memo sent to Board of Education members, Weast said that "callers were abusive to school system staff, using derogatory ethnic comments in expressing their views." He added, "This is not the first time the national debate on immigration policy has engendered harsh commentary for the school system and staff as a target for political purposes."

Edwards said students will receive service learning hours for participating in the rally as long as they do so under the supervision of a community group that has been approved by the school system.

Student participation in the event is being organized by CASA of Maryland Inc., a Silver Spring-based group that works with the Latino community. It is CASA's role -- as organizer -- that has some questioning whether the school system is allowing an outside group to push its political agenda on students. "I do understand that CASA offers some worthy services to immigrants and that's noble, but it's a stretch to allow students to protest for a particular side of an issue,'' said parent Melissa Andersen. "I'm taken aback by it. I think it's poor judgment."

Maryland students are required to put in 60 hours of community service to graduate from high school. They can undertake a number of activities -- including working for political campaigns -- as long as the work is done for a secular, nonprofit community organization that is tax-exempt and that school officials have approved.

Edwards said students who participate in the rally, which takes place during the school system's spring break, will be required to have a sponsoring organization verify their attendance. Students must complete a written assignment to be approved by their service learning coordinator. They receive one hour of credit for every hour spent on the activity, up to a maximum of eight hours in a 24-hour period.

Brad Botwin, whose son is a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, said student community service is important. But he doesn't view the rally as a community service so much as a political statement.

"It's the wrong thing for the schools to be pushing,'' he said. "This is way outside the balance. You can send kids to a nursing home, but a rally? This is not learning."

School board member Stephen N. Abrams (Rockville-Potomac) said students have the right to express their opinions, and if they choose to do so at a political rally -- as long as they abide by the credit rules -- they should not be barred from participating.

"The last time I checked, the First Amendment is not a right to question what the speech is," he said. "I'm sure if students were participating in a tax cap rally, these same people would not be objecting to that."

School systems in Virginia and the District do not have community service requirements. Although teenagers there have been among the most active in protesting the immigration legislation, no systems planned to grant credit for participation in Monday's rally. However, in Fairfax County, school officials said a teacher in a government class, where a service project is often assigned, may choose to consider the rally as part of that requirement.

Staff writers Nick Anderson, Tara Bahrampour, Maria Glod and V. Dion Haynes contributed to this report.

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