The recent immigration rally on the National Mall sparked controversy for Montgomery County High School in Rockville, Maryland. School officials allowed students to participate in the march and to claim state-required “community service” hours for the experience. This decision set off the tempers of otherwise-sensible parents, who inundated district offices with irate phone calls. They wanted an explanation. After all, community service is helping old folks in the home or serving lunch at the shelter or raising money for your favorite charity. It’s not about picking sides in a political debate. Or is it?
Not sure myself, I decided to visit the Maryland State Department of Education’s website to get their side of the story. I discovered something interesting–Maryland doesn’t require community service at all. What they require is “Student Service Learning” or SSL. Their site specifically states that SSL is not the same as volunteerism, community service, or work-study internship. So what is it?
SSL is an activity that meets 7 core criteria. First, it must fill a recognized need in the community. This may be a direct action (serving meals), an indirect action (fundraising), or an advocacy action, advocacy being defined as “educat(ing) others about a particular issue with the goal being to eliminate the cause of a particular problem.” The activity must be linked to curricular studies, help develop student responsibility, establish community partnerships, and equip students with knowledge and skills. The student must plan ahead for the activity and must write a paper reflecting on the experience.
So did participation in the immigration rally meet the requirements for an SSL activity? I think it did. The rally served to educate the American public by generating discussion of immigration issues, and the goal of the rally was the elimination of problems faced by immigrants; therefore, the advocacy criteria was met. The immigration rally was certainly linked to curricular studies. The students witnessed Amendment I of the Bill of Rights in action. For those of you who forget the wording from your own curricular studies, let me refresh your memory:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
By actively exercising the right to peaceably assemble, these students gained a stronger sense of the First Amendment than they would have gotten from merely reading the words in a textbook.
But what about the other criteria? Did the rally develop student responsibility, establish community partnerships, and equip students with certain knowledge and skills? Again, I think it did. The students had to attend the rally under the supervision of CASA, a Maryland-based advocacy group for low-income Latinos in the D.C. Metropolitan Area. Through their involvement with CASA, students were exposed to other services CASA offers, such as English language and citizenship and financial skills classes.
The final two criteria were also met. Students planned ahead for the activity by contacting CASA and arranging time to attend the rally, and they were expected to complete a written report reflecting upon their experience.
In my mind, the immigration rally easily met the requirements for Student Service Learning as defined by the Maryland State Department of Education. So really, the irate parents should complain to the State if they want the advocacy clause removed, not the local school district. In the meantime, if these parents objected to the rally, they should have forbidden their minor children from participating and steered them toward a different experience.
I suspect the real problem is that the complaining parents disagree with CASA’s view of immigration reform. Perhaps these parents disagree with mass citizenship for illegals. Perhaps they feel illegals should be rounded up and sent south. Perhaps they feel a wall should be built along the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s fine. There is certainly merit to those opinions as our national debate on immigration reform continues.
But parent opinion on immigration issues is not the point here. The point is teaching our children that we have the right to peacefully voice our opinion in the United States of America without fear of imprisonment or execution. That is a right we should never take lightly. That is a right folks in China and Iran and North Korea hunger for. That is a right that could be extinguished in our own country if we fail to teach and defend it.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Mike Patrick Jr, MD – This article is available for free distribution. Certain restrictions apply. Please visit the editors page at pediascribe.com for a complete list of reprint guidelines.