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Montgomery County Public Schools. (Courtesy Photo)

SILVER SPRING – Eighteen members of the Montgomery County Council and the Maryland General Assembly are urging Montgomery County Board of Education members to reconsider their policy that marks students unexcused when they miss school to attend a political protest or testify in Rockville or Annapolis.

Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-19) organized the letter sent to the board of education at the end of October. 

Stewart stressed that he had no intention of dictating policy, noting the board of education has “the sole authority” to make this decision.

However, he said, “We hope you guys really give this the old college try.”

Stewart said, “Increasingly, our students are making their voices heard, and we as elected officials should ensure we’re not deterring them.”

A little more than one year ago, the board of education members discussed a policy that would have excused students for a set number of times if they were participating in civic engagement activities. But the matter was tabled at the beginning of the year.

Patricia O’Neill, vice president of Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education, said there was nothing in front of the school board on this matter at present.

“We sent it out twice and received lots of comments. The principals had many concerns. The BOE could not come to a majority,” she wrote in a text to the Montgomery Sentinel. 

By sending the letter, Stewart said he hoped the board would take up the matter again. 

“We agree with our county’s student activists who argue that civic engagement supplements, rather than impedes, their classroom studies. Indeed, several studies have concluded that civic engagement activities yield greater learning and higher graduation rates,” the legislators stated in their letter. 

The letter continued, “By applying academic concepts in the real world, students shift from being knowledge receivers to be being idea creators.” 

Del. Ariana Kelly (D-16) agreed, noting, “I am the proud parent of two MCPS students. I think it’s incredibly important that we urge them to be civically engaged.”

Kelly, who signed the letter, added, “Students today are moving the bar on issues. The future we are building is for them.”

According to the letter, unexcused absences, “disproportionately affect students of color, for whom unexcused absences or missed schoolwork carry harsher consequences.” 

The letter noted that if these absences count as excused and missing classwork can still be worked on, then students from all backgrounds would be better able to participate in civic engagements

Stewart noted that the nearby District of Columbia and Arlington and Fairfax counties do allow for excused absences for civic engagement. 

“If other large, diverse school districts can successfully manage these safety and logistical hurdles, we are confident that Montgomery County can do so as well,” he said. 

The legislators pointed out that they “are sympathetic to the safety risks and disruptions posed by large numbers of students leaving school during instructional hours” but believe this could work. 

Signing the letter were council members Evan Glass, Tom Hucker, Will Jawando and Hans Riemer. Maryland state Sens. Susan Lee (D-16) and Will Smith (D-20) and Dels. Gabriel Acevero (D-39), Lorig Charkoudian (D-20), Charlotte Crutchfield (D-19), Bonnie Cullison (D-19), Ariana Kelly (D-16), David Moon (D-20), Julie Palakovich Carr (D-17), Kirill Reznik (D-39), Emily Shetty (D-18), Jared Solomon (D-18), Vaughn Stewart (D-19) and Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20) also signed on. 

According to the MCPS attendance policy, a student with five or more unexcused absences “is in danger of receiving a failing grade.”

Besides illness, excused absences include, but are not limited to, visits to colleges, participation in college orientation programs, job interviews, or a death in the immediate family.

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