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Missing Graduation as a Matter of Principle

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Lynn Steirer has a 3.0 grade-point average, but she will not graduate in June with her classmates in Bethlehem, Pa.

The Liberty High School senior, who has spent hours coaching sports and volunteering for Meals on Wheels and the Girl Scouts, is protesting her school district's requirement that students complete 60 hours of community service before they receive their diplomas.

Ms. Steirer says her decision to serve others must be based on personal values and should not be imposed upon her by the school system. So she has decided to forgo a high school diploma.

"The program is slavery. You do not have to work for free unless you are a criminal,'' she said.

Ms. Steirer, 17, has been battling the district's mandate, adopted in 1990, in federal court throughout her high school years. She lost in both the district and appellate courts, and last fall the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case. (See Education Week, Oct. 13, 1993.)

"My friends are shocked. They thought I would've caved in by now,'' she said last week. "If I did, I wouldn't have been able to look at myself in the mirror.''

Last week, she flew to Washington with her parents to lend moral support to two students who have just filed similar suits in New York and North Carolina.

Philosophical Difference

Phyllis Walsh, the coordinator of the community-service program at Liberty High, said she respects Ms. Steirer's decision to opt out of the program, but philosophically disagrees with her. Service mandates are designed to educate students about citizenship and career opportunities, not impart values, Ms. Walsh said.

Ms. Steirer will be allowed to attend the senior prom and other events. She said she may go to the graduation ceremony to cheer on her friends unless she is "too depressed.''

And even without a diploma, Ms. Steirer was admitted to Pennsylvania State University in the fall based on her grades and test scores. She plans to major in criminal justice and psychology.

She said she hopes that the "odyssey'' she has been through will convince school administrators that community service should be an elective. "My parents are there to instill their values, not the school district,'' she said.

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