Protests 101

From Los Angeles to D.C., and from Phoenix to Chicago, students are taking to the streets in numbers not seen since the 1960s, in this case to voice their opinions about immigration. Such public demonstrations are central to democracy, but are they central to education?

Schools in Montgomery County, Maryland-a tony suburb of D.C. with a Latino population just under 12 percent-say yes. The district decided that high school students could count their time demonstrating on the Mall in Washington this past Monday toward the 60 hours of community service that Maryland demands of all students to graduate high school. The policy requires that students participating in marches do so outside of school hours. And because this week's large protests fell during Montgomery County's Spring Break, no class time was missed.

But on the other coast, in tiny Tulare County, California, where the Latino population tops 50 percent, the district has different ideas. Students who left Dinuba High School to join protests in nearby Farmersville found themselves rewarded not with service hours, but unexcused absences. Los Angeles Unified also worked hard to prevent its students from protesting off-campus by placing schools under literal lockdown. Some students climbed fences in order to take to the streets, and the district has alerted their parents that disciplinary action will be taken.

It's reasonable to believe that the students of Tulare County will take more from their experiences than will Montgomery County's youngsters. After all, the Golden State's students put themselves on the line knowing that their actions would result in punishment. Admittedly, an unexcused absence is a mild form of punishment. But it's punishment nonetheless. It takes character to act when one knows that consequences are imminent. That's the essence of the great civil disobedience movements.

Character is what Montgomery County hopes to instill in its students by requiring service hours. At the conclusion of each service activity, students must contemplate the "impact of his/her service on the community and his growth and feelings related to the service." The program stems from the popular character education movement. (For more on character education, see here.) While students should certainly be encouraged to stand up for their personal convictions, can such activity truly be considered service? Or character-building?  

Character formation is vitally important, and schools have many opportunities to help shape it-through the study of history, requiring students to perform at high levels, and teaching them to take responsibility for their actions. And sometimes schools do it by saying no.

Dinuba High School arguably did more to teach its students character by not condoning their actions than Montgomery County did by rewarding kids for getting involved. Kudos to the district for sticking to the things it values (class time and formal education). And kudos to the students who took it upon themselves to learn that democracy comes at a price-sometimes small, oftentimes not.

More By Author