Fairfax County School Board Discusses Absences for Civic Engagement

After the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL back in February of 2018, a student led movement calling for an end to gun violence swept across the country. That movement involved student organized walkouts of school, lobby visits with elected officials, rallies in communities, and a variety of other activities. In part due to the school walkouts, the Fairfax County School Board realized it should probably address the rise in student activism and figure out how to deal with the related absences students might have.

Ryan McElveen eventually proposed the school board allow one excused absence per year for students in seventh through twelfth grade to participate in civic engagement.

“I propose that FCPS allow students in grades 7-12 to be excused from school once per school year to participate in civic engagement activities by providing prior notification to the school with evidence of a sponsored/organized event or activity,” McElveen wrote in a “forum topic request” back in February. “These activities could include visiting Capitol Hill in Washington or the General Assembly in Richmond to advocate for legislation and participating a protest or walkout.”

There have been continuing conversations about this topic, especially with how it would fit into the County’s compliance with state and federal regulations regarding chronic absenteeism. The major concern expressed by some school board members, even those who support the concept, is how it would impact schools that are already “in the yellow” regarding having a large population of students with attendance issues.

It was with this in mind that the board’s Governance Committee took up consideration of a proposal to limit the excuse absence to only “a partial day.” While there was some discussion about the exact definition of a partial day, it was largely agreed that this would mean students could show up for their first period class and then be excused for the rest of the day. Having the absence limited to a partial day would help ensure schools remained in line with regulations regarding attendance that Fairfax County is required to follow.

While three of the four members of the committee all agreed that the civic engagement could provide students with an educational experience that’d supplement materials taught in the classroom, Tom Wilson was vehemently opposed to the idea of actually having this be justification for an excused absence. Not only did he believe this would be promoting a political agenda, but he claimed it’d make parents believe FCPS was actually supervising their children at school sponsored rallies.

This sentiment echoed what Wilson and his fellow Republicans were saying on the campaign trail when they constantly claimed Democrats simply wanted to flood the schools with a radical political agenda. At several different points in the discussion, the conservative Republican who lost his election earlier this month claimed it was especially a shame that middle school students would be allowed to participate. He strongly believed they were too young to be given an excused absence in order to participate in civic engagement.

Wilson’s claims were rather ridiculous, especially because the board members made a point of highlighting how there’d have to be parental involvement in one form or another and there wasn’t a limit on only attending functions that supported a particular political party. Megan McLaughlin highlighted, for instance, how there were many conservatives who wanted their children to have an excused absence in order to attend anti-choice rallies in DC.

The Democrats also made a point of saying the forms filled out by the parents should have a disclaimer on them saying the civic engagement activities weren’t sponsored or supervised by the school system.

“We’re not sending a message that we want them to drop out and become 1960s era hippies,” Karen Keys-Gamarra said in response to Wilson’s concerns. “We live in an era where kids are more politically aware.”

Megan McLaughlin added how nobody’s trying to say students should be “foot soldiers in lobbying and activism,” but the experience could bring a different perspective on some of the valuable information that’s provided to students in the classroom. She also highlighted how current students are growing up “in a different era” than that in which the school board members grew up. Through social media and other avenues, students are already aware of political events and want to actively stand up for causes they’re passionate about.

While having this specific reasoning for an absence on the pre-approved list is new, Superintendent Scott Brabrand highlighted how this concept isn’t completely foreign to the school system. He mentioned how during his tenure at Herndon High School, the school’s leadership figured out a policy of how to deal with absences resulting from parents wanting to take their children to the Million Man March in October of 1995. During his time at Lake Braddock, he also arranged for a policy of how to excuse students who wanted to attend a McCain/Palin rally at a local park during the school day.

As Dr. Brabrand and several school board members pointed out, this would simply make the policy uniform across the district. It’d therefore mean there were fewer inconsistencies at the school level that could lead to families believing they’re being treated unfairly.

This didn’t stop Wilson from claiming he’s never had any problems taking his students out of class at Oakton High School for whatever reason he wanted. He went on to use this as further proof of how he believed the Democrats were simply pushing a political agenda. McLaughlin quickly shutdown that argument, however, when she highlighted how her children were highly successful swimmers, but sometimes couldn’t participate in important swim meets when they weren’t given excused absences in order to attend them.

The proposal to update the policy ended up passing the committee by a vote of 3-1 with Tom Wilson being the only person voting against it.

About Bryan J. Scrafford

Bryan Scrafford grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC and stayed in the region for both college and his professional life. An avid baseball and hockey fan, Bryan's also involved with several advocacy organizations fighting for economic justice, LGBT rights, and other issues. You can follow him on twitter at @bscrafford and Instagram at @bjscrafford
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