When two students from Burbank High School reportedly handed a hillside resident one of City Council candidate Sharon Springer’s election flyers and told him they were earning community service credit for going door-to-door for the candidate last month, they had no idea they were dragging Burbank into a contentious political debate that has been raging in school districts across the country.

The question at the center of the maelstrom: should students earn high school credit for campaigning on behalf of a political candidate?

In recent years, public schools nationwide have added the requirement that high school students complete mandatory community service hours in order to earn their high school diplomas. Increasingly, political campaigns are attempting to capitalize on this — leveraging the offer of credit for service for free student labor.

In “14 Ways to Find New Campaign Volunteers,“ an article published on VoterGravity.com, a website aimed at grassroots political candidates, targeting high school students is listed as #5:

“High school students often need to fulfill a certain amount of community service hours for their school or college applications. Working on your campaign will give them the time or credit they need, and will add more energy to your campaign.”

The problem is, this isn’t always true. And, in Burbank, at least, the practice is banned.

In Burbank’s case, it is unclear whether Ms. Springer approached high school staff with her offer of community service credit, or if the proposal was initiated by a member of the BHS staff. Ms. Springer refused to provide any details when Burbank Viewpoints asked for her side of the story; “that issue has been resolved,” she said.

The confusion lies in the fact that rules governing what constitutes “service learning” vary from state to state and even from school district to school district. For example, in Burbank, students must select volunteer activities from a pre-approved list of nonprofits — from the Burbank Public Library to BTAC. Those seeking service credit for activities which are not on this list must first get approval from high school administrators.

In the recent example, the Burbank High students, members of the Key Club, apparently believed that since their club was on the approved list and they were undertaking the campaign activities under the auspices of the club, going door-to-door for Sharon Springer would earn them the promised hours; the school’s principal said it would not.

However, had the students been canvassing in Glendale or Pasadena, their activities would have been sanctioned. The Glendale High School website tells students “if you volunteer your time in the campaign without being paid, then it qualifies as community service in our program.”

This lack of consistency among schools helps fuel the controversy. For example, parents in a town in Maine were outraged when their local high school included a notice soliciting volunteers for the Clinton campaign among activities eligible for community service credit hours (the school apologized and removed the listing). In Florida, voters knocked down a proposed law that would have permitted the practice for students hoping to earn service hours to qualify for state scholarships.

From a legal standpoint, the practice raises some troubling questions.

Generally, the courts have ruled that schools must maintain political neutrality, even going so far as to place limits on teachers’ First Amendment right to free speech (Garcetti v. Ceballos (126 U.S. 1951 [2006]). Teachers, including club advisors and school administrators, may not take advantage of their positions of authority over students to promote their own political views or use public resources to support political activities.

In Burbank’s case, it is unclear whether Ms. Springer approached high school staff with her offer of community service credit, or if the proposal was initiated by a member of the BHS staff. Ms. Springer refused to provide any details when Burbank Viewpoints asked for her side of the story; “that issue has been resolved,” she said.

School administrators say their opposition to the practice is based both on the policy that forbids participation in partisan activities and a concern for student safety.

Indeed, sanctioning door-to-door solicitations by unsupervised students could potentially subject the school district to liability. In 2010, a youth club leader in New York was charged with 11 counts of charge endangerment for enlisting kids to go door-to-door selling chocolate bars to raise funds for its organization.

“Knocking on people’s doors is really dangerous,” says Reid Maki, director of Child Labor Advocacy at the National Consumers League — citing abuse, robbery, reckless driving, and sexual exploitation as possible hazards of soliciting door-to-door.

While the state laws that govern door-to-door sales by students don’t apply to campaigning, the state of California seems to recognize the inherent danger of the practice. Like other states around the country, it has instituted strict laws to govern it, including the requirement that children under 16 be supervised by an adult.

Since Sharon Springer won’t explain her campaign’s role in mobilizing the student volunteers it’s impossible to say if she was aware of Burbank High’s particular requirement. Perhaps, initially at least, she was not (a reasonable-enough supposition given the inconsistency from district to district). But her failure to consider all the possible ramifications of her decision — especially if her campaign initiated the activity, but even if her role was limited to providing the flyers for students to deliver on her behalf, should still give Burbank residents pause.

It doesn’t take much thought to realize, for example, that dispatching unsupervised high school students to ring the doorbells of complete strangers could be potentially dangerous, and most voters would agree that jeopardizing the safety of students for political gain is unacceptable. Likewise, it’s hard to argue that subjecting our school district to potential liability in return for free labor isn’t irresponsible behavior. The students themselves have every right to be furious. They spent an entire afternoon walking the hillside on Sharon Springer’s behalf, apparently under false pretenses, and are no closer to completing their service requirement than they were when they started.

Perhaps most importantly, however, it was incumbent upon this candidate to consider the ethical implications of her actions. Legalities aside, basic fairness dictates that public resources not be harnessed for personal or political gain. A candidate who values ethics and fair play would consider a situation like this one carefully. Enlisting like-minded young people and offering them an opportunity to engage in the political system and experience grassroots organizing firsthand is one thing. Orchestrating, or even being a party to, a scheme to trade high school graduation credits for free labor is quite another.

Unfortunately, a willingness to test — and occasionally cross — legal and ethical boundaries, especially when it comes to utilizing public resources for personal or political gain, is nothing new to Burbank. The illegal donation of $50,000 to airport boosters by the Burbank Hospitality Association is just one recent example. If this is something Burbank residents want to change, they need to start demanding that their representatives hold themselves to a higher ethical standard and take a closer look at the decisions they make on the campaign trail. There’s only one way for Burbank residents to send the message that ethics matter.

They need to vote for candidates for whom ethics matter.