Student-led group advocates for creation of MD HB0753; bill passes House of Delegates before end of session

For the past nine months, an entirely student-led group has been fighting for the right for their peers to plan peaceful demonstrations in Maryland schools. During this year’s 90-day legislative session, their vision manifested itself into House Bill 753, which they had drafted, introduced, and eventually passed in the House of Delegates before stalling in the Senate in the last days of session.

The bill, sponsored by Delegate Eric D. Ebersole (D-Baltimore and Howard counties), seeks to accomplish two goals: ensure students’ right to engage in peaceful protest, and clarify consistent statewide standards for doing so.

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“It’s supposed to create rules that the school understands, so we don’t interrupt the school day and instruction, but at the same time let students know how to proceed so that they can demonstrate without having an uneven disciplinary policy,” said Ebersole.

The bill accomplishes this by requiring local school systems to create a policy and outlines several standards that said policy must contain. These policies will be enforced at the local level and are more easily integrated with other school system policies than comprehensive statewide regulations.

“House Bill 753, seeks to legislate [First Amendment] protections and solidify Maryland’s commitment towards protecting the democratic rights of all its citizens. This legislation serves the important purpose of ensuring equal implementation of the Constitution, and forms mutually agreed upon procedures for students to organize and participate in demonstrations” says Jonathon DiPietro, Director of the Maryland Student Coalition (MSC), the group that has brought together more than 60 leaders from 14 counties and Baltimore City to advocate in favor of HB0753. He says his and many others’ experience with confusing regulations around student protest were why he pushed for the creation of this bill in the first place.

Despite the fact that students’ right to peacefully demonstrate has been continually affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, many Maryland jurisdictions outright ban protests or severely limit them beyond feasibility. Anne Arundel County, for example, prohibits all forms of mass protest in its Student Handbook, with students being subject to the highest level of consequence and possible police intervention for even participating. Meanwhile, officials in Montgomery County have even discussed granting excused absences to student demonstrators, recognizing the educational value in civic engagement outside of the classroom. The bill seeks to address wildly differing approaches like these across the state.

Hunter Craig, a student at Howard Community College and Assistant Director of the MSC, offered oral testimony in favor of the bill during its hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee.

“Let me be clear– if passed, this bill will not serve as a loophole for students to get out of school. It’s simply a uniform code that permits mutually agreed upon conditions between students and administration when it comes to organizing a student demonstration. It also provides a reasonable timeframe for student leaders to organize the logistics with their school administration…Having local jurisdictions shape their own policy will ensure that it fits the respective school system’s needs and applies equal implementation to all students across the district. If we continue to go by the status quo, it will leave open the opportunity for schools and local jurisdictions to unjustly limit free speech.”

“Whether it be organized walkouts for gun reform, sit-ins for achievement of education equity in our schools, or marches for the Black Lives Matter movement, I have learned more about public speaking, interacting with elected officials, and the intricacies of our education system than I ever have in an academic setting. The ability to engage in political participation is thereby not only a right, but a necessity which will prove to be beneficial for the current student body and future generations to come.” says Lauren Raskin, Outreach Coordinator for the Coalition and Montgomery County Resident.

Despite a strong start in the House of Delegates and a promising hearing in the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee, HB 753 was not given a committee vote before the end of this year’s legislative session. However, MSC Expansion Coordinator Chris Lidard is optimistic for the future.

“There’s always next session. Most bills take two to three years to pass, so to make it to the Senate in only one year was a big accomplishment. We’re going to take a step back, hammer out any issues with the bill, and get it ready to cross the finish line next session,” he says. “We are also looking at other legislative initiatives we may want to take on to channel the different advocacy passions of our members.”

The 2022 Legislative Session convenes on January 12th, 2022.

Coalition members include activists, organizers, student leaders, and Student Members on local Boards of Education. Coalition members are secondary and college students from Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Carroll, Cecil, Charles, Frederick, Garrett, Harford, Howard, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George’s, St. Mary’s Washington, and Wicomico Counties as well as Baltimore City.

*The Maryland Student Coalition has been mentioned in the press before: https://www.marylandmatters.org/2021/04/05/bill-seeks-to-bring-clarity-to-rules-on-student-protests/

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Scott E