Md.'s community service program for students could be in danger Similar requirement challenged in federal court by N.C. youths' lawsuit

March 06, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

A Maryland law requiring public school students to complete community service or forfeit their diplomas could be undermined by a lawsuit heard yesterday in federal court in Baltimore.

Two students at Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina contend that their school board's requirement that they complete 50 hours of community service in four years is unconstitutional. They contend that the mandate is "akin to slavery" because it forces them to work against their will.

"I don't intend to do this under any circumstances for this school board," John Reinhard III, 15, said yesterday outside the courthouse. "I won't graduate."

John Reinhard and Aric Herndon, 15, sparked a debate over whether demanding community service exploits child labor or fulfills citizenship expectations. Their parents say that families have a right to object because the requirement conflicts with their personal values.

The lawsuit was filed in April 1994. In July 1995, the U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., ruled against the two students. They appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel heard the case yesterday. A decision isn't expected for several months.

Maryland school officials said that though they are keeping close watch on the case, they are not worried that their community service program is in jeopardy.

"We are not particularly concerned that this will have any impact on Maryland in the event that the court ruled in favor" of the two North Carolina students, said Ronald A. Peiffer, assistant state superintendent.

But the case for Maryland's Student Service Learning Program, begun in 1993, could be weakened if the court rules that the North Carolina requirement is unconstitutional. Parents opposed to the Maryland requirement would have a court ruling backing them. If that happens, "it might influence a future decision" by the court, Mr. Peiffer said.

Maryland is the only state in the nation that requires all public school students to perform community service. About 60,000 students are expected to perform 75 hours of service between their freshman and senior years.

Educators in the 7,900-student Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district say that community service exposes students to community issues and shows how their actions can bring positive changes. They say it teaches good citizenship and instills positive values.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school Superintendent Neil Pedersen warned of chaotic consequences if the two students win the case. "The ramifications are that it would open the door for parents to challenge any aspect of the curriculum that challenges parental values."

Mr. Pedersen said that if parents don't agree with the requirements, they can send their children to private school or get a General Educational Development diploma. They also have the option of obtaining a certificate of completion -- which is not a diploma -- and explaining the circumstances to college and university officials.

The father of one of the youths said that school officials who force students to perform community work take the joy out of the experience. He said that the school board should make it optional. "Why not use a carrot instead of a stick?" John Reinhard II said.

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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