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Proposed Montgomery County schools policy would excuse absences for protests

Students lead the March for Our Lives rally in March in Washington following the shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead.
Students lead the March for Our Lives rally in March in Washington following the shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 dead. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Skipping school to attend a protest is likely to get much easier for high school students in suburban Maryland beginning as early as January.

That’s when the school board in Montgomery County is expected to approve a revamped proposal to allow public high school students to take as many as three excused absences a year to participate in political protests and other forms of “civic engagement” during the school day.

The district’s proposal is considered to be one of very few in the country that would formally let students take an excused day off to join marches, lead protests, lobby leaders, campaign for candidates or otherwise partake in civic action. It comes in a year when high school students have been at the forefront of political protests across the country, particularly on gun violence issues but extending into political campaign matters including student debt, health care and abortion rights.

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The push for the measure arose because parents and students in the county expressed concern that different schools had different approaches when it came to deciding whether a student could receive an excused absence for engaging in protests. They felt students shouldn’t be punished with an unexcused absence for taking part in demonstrations so directly connected to issues affecting their lives.

“We’re taught about how important it is to be engaged in our world and community, and to be aware of what’s going on and to be a responsible participant in the democratic process,” said Ananya Tadikonda, 17, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School and the student representative on the Montgomery County Board of Education. “This proposal gives students an opportunity to exercise civic responsibility without being penalized for it.”

When it was introduced in September, the proposal required parental consent, the approval of the school principal and permission from the organization sponsoring the political activity or protest.

Excused absences would not be approved for spontaneous walkouts or protests such as those that took place at schools across the country following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in February. Students who leave campus without receiving approval would not receive an excused absence.

The goal of the policy is to ensure students and employees “are well informed and guided in their activities regarding the requirements of state election laws and their participation in civic engagement activities, political campaigns, partisan election activities, and distribution of political or partisan materials.”

The board approved the proposal unanimously in September, but during the public comment period, critics pointed to problems with the guidelines requiring clarification. Principals didn’t want to be in the position of approving or disapproving requests, particularly when they were uncertain about the nature of the events or whether they would be safe for students. Getting approval from organizations or individuals sponsoring protests or other civic activities seemed burdensome to many students and parents.

When board members met earlier this month, they addressed those concerns. Principals no longer have to approve the student requests; they can simply give notification they have received them. And it is no longer necessary for students to receive permission from organizations sponsoring the civic engagement events. The amended proposal is open for public comment until Dec. 16, and the board could vote in January. If passed, as expected, the rule would take effect immediately.

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Public reaction to the proposal — as seen playing out in comments posted about the policy on a school board site — has been mixed. Most students appear to support the effort, as do many parents and county residents.

A supporter of the policy wrote that it presented an opportunity for students to receive guidance and express their anger: “If we ignore their true feelings and desire to speak or stand for what they believe is right . . . or wrong . . . they will increasingly be made to feel that their voices are insignificant in the public discourse.”

But other residents expressed concerns students would be missing out on valuable school time and disrupting the school day.

“You are sending a message to the MCPS community that students protesting is more important than them being at school engaged in learning,” one commenter wrote.

Patricia O’Neill, a longtime member of the school board, said the policy reflects the atmosphere of intense student engagement in political issues, especially during the past year. She said it is important students not be penalized for that engagement.

“We want students to be prepared to be active citizens and be the next generation of leaders and learning,” O’Neill said. “Public education was established to prepare the next generation of citizens in this country, and learning doesn’t just occur in the classroom, it occurs in life experiences.”