Youth Service Day Brings New Challenges to District Mandates
Fifty public school students scoured the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington one morning last week, filling plastic bags with trash and debris while learning about the fragile ecology of the nation's third-most-polluted river.
The massive cleanup was one of hundreds of events across the country celebrating National Youth Service Day, in which nearly one million students volunteered to work in such places as nursing homes, homeless shelters, and public parks to showcase youth involvement in community service.
But not every student was extolling the virtues of service--at least not if such work is required as part of a school program.
At a news conference in Washington last week, two students said they had launched legal challenges against their school districts, which mandate community service as a condition of graduation.
The Institute for Justice, a Washington-based law group that is representing the students, filed separate federal lawsuits contending that the school districts' requirements are tantamount to involuntary servitude and thus violate the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Currently, 8 percent of districts require students to complete some form of community service before graduating, the institute said. More school boards are expected to consider service requirements this year.
"It's not that I don't want to do the hours, but the Constitution says you don't have to do any work for free unless you're a criminal,'' said Aric Herndon, a high school freshman who, with his parents, is suing the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City, N.C., district, which requires students to complete 50 hours of service. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C.
Mr. Herndon, a longtime Boy Scout, may not graduate because the community service he performs as a Scout does not count toward fulfilling the district's requirement.
The institute also filed a suit in a federal court in Manhattan in New York City on behalf of Daniel Immediato, an 11th grader who, with his parents, is challenging the community-service policy in the Westchester County, N.Y., schools.
Mr. Immediato said he objects to the fact that because he is paid for his work as a lifeguard, it does not satisfy the district's service requirement.
'Not Simply a Frill'
"Nobody is against the idea of helping others, but these programs are about forcing kids to work for others for free, and that is unconstitutional,'' said Scott Bullock, a lawyer for the institute.
Besides, Mr. Bullock added, when districts start mandating service, it "destroys the spirit of volunteering. The decision to serve others must come from one's heart, not through government edict.''
Supporters of mandated service argue, however, that service is as fundamental to education as the core subjects because it teaches students how to be good citizens.
"Service is not simply a frill; it is essential for a working democracy,'' said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a deputy assistant U.S. attorney general, who spearheaded the drive in Maryland that led to the first community-service mandate on the state level. While a few states are considering service mandates, Maryland is the only state that requires students to perform community service in order to graduate.
Ms. Townsend said she believes that too many young people are unaware of how to get involved in service and that mandating it is the only way they can learn about the opportunities available to them.
Earlier Challenge Failed
The practice of mandatory community service was first challenged in a 1990 lawsuit, Steirer v. Bethlehem Area School District, in which Lynn Steirer, then an 8th-grade student, challenged the community-service program in her Bethlehem, Pa., district. Federal district and appeals courts upheld the requirement, and last fall the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Ms. Steirer has decided to forfeit her diploma rather than comply with the community-service requirement. (See story, this page.)
In Mr. Herndon's and Mr. Immediato's cases, the lawyers hope that the federal courts in New York and North Carolina will issue opposing decisions which would make it more likely for the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the issue.
The institute's lawyers are also using a broader legal claim in these lawsuits than was employed in the Steirer case. In addition to the 13th Amendment claim of involuntary servitude, the lawyers say that by mandating service, the school districts are violating the 14th Amendment due-process provision, which they said "guarantees parents the right to direct and control the upbringing of their children.''
John Herndon, Aric Herndon's father, argues that the Chapel Hill district usurped his parental rights by directing his son to participate in activities the school system deems are "good for him.''
"They've legislated his time outside of school,'' he said, "and I consider that an absolute infringement on my liberties as a parent.''