The county school board, superintendent and teachers association came out strongly this week against the state's proposal to require highschool students to complete 75 hours of community service before graduation.
The opponents raised several objections, but in the wordsof Carl Roberts, director of secondary education for Harford schools, their concerns boil down to this: "Philosophically, we don't agree with mandatory service."
That sentiment contrasts sharply with those expressed in hundredsof letters sent to the state school board by business owners and community leaders. They say service will instill in students a sense of how the world works and the real-life needs of the communities in which they live.
Some of the objections do raise questions that must be ad
dressed before the proposal is set in stone. But, to my mind, the idea has merit. It might provide job opportunities for studentsand would expose them to real life -- the trauma and poverty of the single parent, the loneliness of life in a nursing home.
Instead of beating up on the proposal, school officials should use their energy to find compromises that would make it work.
Keith Williams, a Harford school board member, says the board opposes the mandatory requirement for two reasons. First, the board is worried that a mandatoryrequirement could mean that the school system would be open to lawsuits should a student be injured while doing community service. When pressed, Williams acknowledges that in his six years on the board he has never heard of the school system being sued as a result of a student being injured while working on a community service project.
Christine Haggett, president of the Harford County Teachers Association,says that while it may be true that no lawsuits have been filed so far, making service mandatory could change the legal landscape.
We do have a litigious society these days. But lets look at the people with experience in the area of mandatory community service: Catholic schools.
Many of them have been requiring high school students to engage in community service work as a requirement for graduation sincethe 1970s.
The John Carroll School in Bel Air requires its National Honor Society students to perform eight hours of community servicework each semester. And at my alma mater, Loyola High School in Towson, students must perform 40 hours of community service work between the middle of their junior year and the middle of their senior year.
Bill Kennedy, S.J., director of the program at the Jesuit school, says the school has never been sued by a student, parent or anyone else in connection with the community service program.
The other objection the school board and superintendent raise
to the proposal is that they could not adequately administer community service programs, given the current staffing levels in high schools.
"The way it is set up, unless we hired additional people to track what the kids are doing, you'd run the risk of some students' playing games," says Williams, the board member.
But this issue could be addressed if parents, who have dumped too many of their responsibilities for child rearing on the schools already, were required to take on some of the administrative duties, such as calling work sites to make sure students are showing up.
There are many compromises that could be explored. The bottom line is that the opportunities this program offers should not be missed.