- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2000

Maryland requires its high school students to do volunteer work to graduate, but how the students donate their time is largely left up to them.

So two seniors at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda decided to work for a cause they support: legalizing marijuana.

Scarlett Swerdlow, 18, got permission from her high school last semester to fulfill her service learning requirement by doing clerical work and research for the Marijuana Policy Project. She later was joined at the project's D.C. office by a classmate, 17-year-old Keely Owens.

"I think there's definitely irony, but it's good," Miss Swerdlow said. "I think it's important that students and teachers realize prohibition is really harmful."

The Marijuana Policy Project says it now plans to seek volunteers from other public high schools.

"Now that Scarlett has jumped through the hoops herself and gotten us approved as an allowable organization, we think it will be much easier to reach hundreds of students in Montgomery County, if not thousands of students nationwide," said the project's chief spokesman, Chuck Thomas. "It's a win-win situation because either we get the volunteer help or we sue the schools and get the attention."

Miss Swerdlow, who went undefeated during her years on the school's speech team, decided to volunteer for the project after a speech she gave on marijuana law reform was criticized by contest judges, who called the topic inappropriate.

Mr. Thomas suggested she put her hours at the organization toward her service learning requirement.

"A lot of times, we just wait until a perfect opportunity comes our way," said Mr. Thomas. He said people convicted of drug offenses also have volunteered as part of their mandatory community service.

Miss Swerdlow said she and her classmates were startled by how easy it was to get permission from the school service learning coordinator.

"She just kind of looked at the form and said, 'Yeah, it's approved,' " Miss Swerdlow said.

Kathy McGuire, director for comprehensive pupil services for Montgomery County Public Schools, said the Marijuana Policy Project is not on the district's list of approved organizations, which includes such organizations as the Alzheimer's Association, the Anacostia Watershed Society and the Montgomery County public libraries.

That means a school official and a parent must approve it for each individual student, she said.

"It may be something that is not my cup of tea, or what I think the kids should be doing," Ms. McGuire said. "But the parents have signed off on it."

Miss Swerdlow's mother, Duchy Trachtenberg, said her daughter was probably the perfect student to blaze that particular trail. The teen-ager was in the top 5 percent of her class, and both she and Keely Owens were national merit commended scholars.

"I'm sure Scarlett had all the I's dotted and T's crossed," said Mrs. Trachtenberg, a social worker who counsels adolescents. "It was somewhat controversial, but she clearly believed in it … I think it took a lot of courage and I think it's an educational opportunity."

Maryland and the District both require public school students to do community service for graduation. California is considering a similar requirement, according to the Corporation for National Service. At least a hundred school districts scattered throughout nearly all 50 states have a service learning requirement.

Miss Swerdlow and Keely Owens are not the first students to stretch the requirement's boundaries.

"Students have gotten credit for advocating that service learning go away," said Luke Frazier, the director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, which is part of the state Department of Education.

Several years ago, some Carroll County students met the requirement by lobbying against service learning, Frazier said.

About the same time, the Ayn Rand Institute argued in several newspapers that service learning was involuntary servitude. The Marina del Rey, Calif.-based organization encouraged students to volunteer there as a protest against the requirement.

"We believe that the individual is sacred, and he has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of his own happiness." said Scott McConnell, communications director for Ayn Rand Institute. Mr. McConnell said the institute usually has two or three volunteers at any given time.

"Personally, I would much rather support that kind of effort simply because the legality issue of it," Mr. Frazier said. "The [marijuana project] stands for the legalization of something that is currently illegal."

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