Montgomery County proposes excused absences to allow students to practice civic engagement

 Protestors stuck their signs on fences in downtown Washington D.C. after the 2018 student-led demonstration calling for gun reform, March for Our Lives. (Iman Hassen/The Black Explosion)

Protestors stuck their signs on fences in downtown Washington D.C. after the 2018 student-led demonstration calling for gun reform, March for Our Lives. (Iman Hassen/The Black Explosion)

This past September, the Montgomery County Board of Education approved the county’s proposal of allowing up to three excused absences to let students participate in protests, marches and other civic engagements. The proposal requires students to obtain permission from their parents before attending the protest.  

Originally, the proposal required students to receive permission from both the principal and protest organizers and sponsors .

When the proposal was open for public comment, critics argued that the process was too much of a hassle. Principals shouldn’t be the ones deciding if students should skip school because they cannot guarantee the safety of their students are off campus.

Therefore, the board met again in November to discuss the concerns presented. Now the amended proposal requires only parental consent and not permission from the principal or protest organizers.

In the months following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, students around the country participated in student-led walkouts and marches, demanding stricter gun control. Montgomery County became the center of attention when hundreds of high school students walked out on Feb. 20.

Although students from various schools joined the walkout, some decided against joining in fear of being punished by their schools.

Jill Ortman-Fouse, Montgomery County Board of Education member at-large, said, “I do believe students, especially those who are conscious of college entrance competition, avoid unexcused absences and are more likely to not participate in civic engagement activities if they are not excused.”

Ortman-Fouse elaborated on how low-income students were affected because of their dependence on scholarships.

“They were very concerned about the loss of scholarships,” she said. “Some were trying to get to college through their athletic participation and unexcused absences barred them from practices and games.”

Students are afraid in their classrooms, and they’re also afraid to leave the classrooms to protest these conditions.

Emnet Kahsay, a junior at Richard Montgomery High School, agrees with Ortman-Fouse saying students have been “promised change and a safer environment but that is not what we’ve been getting. Instead, we are getting more debate.” Kahsay is in full support of the proposal because it allows students to take action rather than wait for others enact change.

The new proposal is open to public comment until Dec. 16. It has garnered a lot of support so far but it has received its fair share of criticism as well, mostly on the basis that skipping school would be a disruption and allowing this kind of behavior insinuates that MCPS is prioritizing protesting over in-class learning.

To that, Ortman-Fouse retorts, “Sometimes there are more important things than grades.”