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A proposal in Delaware would allow students one excused absence each school year to attend a “civic engagement activity.” If passed, it would be the nation’s first statewide guarantee, its sponsor said.
Middle- and high-school students in Delaware could miss a day of school to participate in a protest, rally or other “civic engagement activity” under a proposal introduced last week in the General Assembly.
The bill, awaiting a hearing before the House Education Committee, would grant students in grades 6 through 12 one excused absence per school year to attend some sort of civic engagement event, including “visiting Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. or Legislative Hall in Dover, visiting a site of significant historical or cultural importance, advocating for or testifying on behalf of legislation, or participating in a rally, march, protest, or walkout.”
Students would be free to choose the issue they want to support or the place they’d like to visit, said state Rep. Eric Morrison, a Democrat who introduced the measure last Tuesday.
“We defined it very broadly and left it open because we wanted it to be as inclusive, nonpartisan and open as possible,” he said. “I just want to encourage students to get involved in their communities.”
Morrison said the measure was prompted by widespread rallies for racial justice last year after a white police officer in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes. Students, he noticed, wanted to participate in the demonstrations, but some got pushback from adults and schools.
“I think we, as adults, get a little jaded and think that young people don’t know what they’re talking about, and that they should sit down and stay quiet,” Morrison said. “But they have a lot to offer and they have a lot of great ideas, and they want to get involved. And we just really want to send a message to them that they should get involved.”
As originally written, the bill required a student’s parent or guardian to provide written permission for the absence at least three school days in advance. But Morrison plans to introduce an amendment to change that section after a colleague pointed out that a student could potentially decide to participate in a protest immediately after an unplanned incident.
“We’re amending it so they do not have to give advance notice, but they will need some kind of written excuse afterwards from a parent or guardian,” he said.
Each school will need to determine an acceptable format for those written excuses, which could include email, a physical letter or an official form generated by the school or district. If administrators don’t confirm receipt of the permission, “the student’s absence to attend the civic engagement event is presumed excused,” the bill says.
At least two school districts have similar policies in place—one in Fairfax County, Virginia, the other in Seattle—but there are no statewide measures that guarantee students this type of excused absence, Morrison said.
The proposal has bipartisan support, including a co-sponsor in the Delaware Senate who’s a former educator. That lends credence to the measure, said Morrison, who worked for six years as a full-time teacher.
“As a former educator myself, I recognize that you can’t teach everything in a classroom,” he said. “It’s one thing to read about the power of protesting, but to actually get out there and do it—that’s the real thing.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.