Gilman School headmaster declares war on incivility Private Baltimore academy makes courtesy its theme for '93-'94 year

September 06, 1993|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

Algebra and geometry. Soccer and football. Parties. These are the rites of autumn as schools reopen.

Who would have thought "civility" would ever top the list?

That's the case at Gilman School, the 96-year-old private school on the corner of Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway, which has made civility -- aka courtesy -- its theme for the academic year.

Students begin classes tomorrow at a school whose headmaster is determined that Gilman will be a kinder, gentler place. Alarmed by the rampant lack of courteous behavior nationwide, Headmaster Arch Montgomery has declared war on incivility.

"I don't want to air Gilman's dirty laundry, but last year I saw a casualness that didn't belong," Mr. Montgomery says.

Most disturbing, he says, was the surge in altercations among younger children and the ungracious behavior shown guest speakers at the school. Some students held their heads in their hands during assemblies; others trained their eyes everywhere but on stage.

Other signs of the times: Children blocking hallways by sitting on the floor with legs outstretched. Trash left on lunchroom tables. And a blatant disregard by some for school dress codes.

Taken one by one, at a school like Gilman, these infractions might seem minor, Mr. Montgomery says. But, added to the trends the 40-year-old headmaster sees in the world beyond the school walls, the offenses are cause for action, not words, he says.

The crackdown at Gilman, a $9,000-a-year academic mecca for nearly 1,000 young men from kindergarten through 12th grade, has drawn wide support from school experts and others who study social behavior.

"I'm supportive of what [Gilman] is doing," says Dr. Ernest Lefever of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "The harshness, the ugliness that has entered Western civilization is more pronounced than ever, and one of the major indicators is our schools."

One nationally recognized school psychologist calls Mr. Montgomery's plan "essential" to maintain eroding campus decorum.

"A minimum amount of civility is needed for learning to take place. Teachers everywhere report that behavior is not as good as in the past," says Dr. Michael Thompson, of the Cambridge (Mass.) Center for School Consultation.

Students are disobeying teachers at much younger ages, Dr. Thompson says. "Elementary-age children have always mocked teachers behind their backs, but never to their faces, until recently."

Incivility permeates private and public schools, he says: "What you see [at Gilman] is the same type of narcissistic entitlement and rampant individualism that you'll find in any well-to-do suburban school."

Addressing Gilman students last spring, Mr. Montgomery realized that their discourtesy, while obvious to others, was unintended.

"They didn't mean to come across as arrogant, disrespectful or self-indulgent," he says. "The average kid is shocked that he'd come across as uncivilized and rude."

But the scope of the problem has triggered a schoolwide assault on incivility. Student behavioral policies have been revised, counselors hired and lessons modified to include a chapter on courtesy.

In a July 23 letter to students, advising them of the new procedures, Mr. Montgomery wrote: "Civility seems to be on the decline everywhere, and Gilman . . . cannot pretend to be uninfluenced by society's changes."

At the moment, civility is being put to the test at Gilman. The school is being renovated, straining facilities and manners.

"We'll be living cheek-to-jowl for a while," Mr. Montgomery says. "This will be a challenge for everyone."

Community support

The headmaster's plan has community support. Rowdiness among some young students on the playground and in Gilman's halls last spring spurred parental concerns.

"Jostling was bordering on rudeness, and the parents wanted to know how they could help," Mr. Montgomery says.

His answer? Civility is learned behavior. Courtesy begins at home.

"We're not born civil; we're born little atoms of self-interest," he says. "And as an educator looking at the children entering this school, that really concerns me."

The Year of Civility begins next week at Gilman, when elementary-age students compile lists of "civil" words (honesty and humility come to the headmaster's mind), and discuss them a series of lectures the headmaster has planned.

"I don't believe Gilman has more problems than anyone else, but we sure aren't an island," Mr. Montgomery says. "We're just trying to meet this problem head-on. Civility is more than manners; it's an attitude." To the 3 R's, he says, add a fourth: Respect.

A disrespectful world

And respect is just as elusive off-campus, he says.

Recent snapshots from the headmaster's album:

* At a party for his 9-year-old son, Mr. Montgomery observes one child dousing another with soda. Told to stop, the youngster replies, "I don't care what you say."

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