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HCPSS Students’ Research and Advocacy Yields New State Law

June 13th, 2022

In 2018 a group of Centennial Lane Elementary School students began investigating coal tar sealants. Now, five years later, the work of those students, now at Centennial High School, has directly led to a statewide ban.

The students’ research revealed that the sealants, which are used to recondition asphalt surfaces, present a number of health and environmental concerns. They also discovered that the sealants were banned in many local counties, but not Howard.

The students responded to this discovery with a year-long effort to bring about a coal tar sealant ban in Howard County. This included meeting with representatives from the Department of Energy & Environment and the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as presenting their case to the Howard County Council. Their effort paid off: on October 10, 2018, the Council unanimously voted for a bill banning coal tar sealants and then-County Executive Allan Kittleman signed it into law.

The experience was an empowering one for the students, and one that inspired them to explore a ban at the state level.

“With the win at the County level, we already had momentum going,” explains Melanie, a member of the “Safer Sealants” team, as the student group is now called. “We believed that achieving a state ban was possible.”

Safer Sealant member Cindy agrees.

“We knew from our experience in Howard County that there were people in Maryland who were supportive of a ban on coal tar sealants, and we knew that other states had restrictions in place. That gave us confidence to take our case to the state level.”

Over the following two years, the Safer Sealant team, under the supervision of Burleigh Manor Middle School Gifted and Talented Resource Teacher Robyn Page, worked closely with Maryland legislators to develop a bill banning statewide use of coal tar sealants. The group testified twice before both the Maryland House and the Senate. And on Friday, May 27, 2022, the Maryland legislature approved HB 133. It will take effect on October 1, 2023.

“Knowing that the bill is now a law is a huge relief,” says Mimmi, a Safer Sealant team member. “There were times when it felt like we were never going to reach our goal. But year after year, we worked hard to make our case stronger and stronger. And this year, all that hard work finally paid off.”

In addition to the relief and satisfaction they felt from seeing the state ban coal tar sealants, the Safer Sealants team learned a number of valuable lessons.

“We definitely learned a lot about teamwork,” says team member Riya. “We learned to listen to each other’s opinions and work together. We also learned a lot about how to present well to others and be confident in the material we were presenting.”

Team member Claire says the experience not only built the group’s scientific knowledge, but also their appreciation of the value of perseverance.

“Getting to the end of the legislative process took a lot of time, patience, and persistence. But we never gave up.”

Working on the coal tar sealants ban also taught students the importance of compromise in the legislative process, says team member Cindy.

“We definitely had some opponents to our position. But we realized that in order to achieve our goal and get the support we needed, we would need to agree to some amendments to our original bill. In the end, we accepted some [of our opponents’] suggestions and made a bill that was palatable to all.”

For Mimmi, one of the greatest takeaways was that “facts and science prevail.”

“Our opponents used largely anecdotal evidence to support their case, whereas we did an immense amount of research, consulted experts in the field, and made a strong, fact-based case that ultimately enabled us to win.”

Melanie says that for her, working on the coal tar legislation helped her to realize that even though most students are too young to vote, they can still play an important role in the legislative process.

“It’s been amazing to discover that even as fifth graders, we could work together and take a stand–and that we could get legislators to listen to us and take action on what we had to say.”