What Ever Happened to Respect?


November 14, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

A woman whose work often takes her into city classrooms was leaving a Baltimore middle school recently. At the end of the hall, she found a small group of students gathered at the doorway.

''Excuse me,'' she said. The youngsters grudgingly shifted their positions enough to allow her through. As she passed, she heard one girl mutter, ''White bitch.''

Her first impulse was to confront the students, to demand an explanation for such rudeness. It was at heart a parental instinct, the familiar urge to rein in youthful misbehavior, to teach them the ground rules of civility, the guidelines for participating in society.

But instead of challenging the comment, she went her way and the students went theirs, the gaps between them as large as ever.

Her caution was understandable. On Roland Avenue last month, Mayor Schmoke took a different tack. Spying two 13-year-olds punching each other, he ordered his driver to stop. He and his bodyguard then separated the boys.

His thanks? A shove in the chest. The mayor is still stunned by the insolence of the boy.

Respect. What's happened to it?

That question looms especially large in Baltimore schools these days. Earlier this month, the Baltimore Teachers Union met with the mayor to express its concerns about the physical safety of teachers in the schools, something that was once taken for granted.

The fears are understandable. Despite concerted attempts by Superintendent Walter G. Amprey to make city schools safe, as many as 10 teachers have been physically assaulted by students this year. One middle-school teacher beaten by four girls in her sixth-grade class was injured badly enough to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

According to school-system officials, any student who assaults a teacher faces automatic disciplinary removal from school. Some students also face legal charges, as do two of the girls who assaulted their teacher. Disruptive students may also be consigned to an alternative school.

Schools are no longer a sheltered haven from the harsh realities of life. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, since violence now seems endemic in American life. The problems seem especially acute in city schools, but no one should rest easy that surrounding jurisdictions are immune from these forces.

Like Dr. Amprey, other superintendents have taken steps to reduce threats and violence in schools -- or they soon will need to take them. Dr. Amprey has instituted a hotline for reporting guns, drugs or other dangerous situations, along with a strong emphasis on teaching conflict resolution so that students have alternatives to violence.

That's good, but all those efforts will only get us back to the starting line. After all, the essence of an education is a relationship between teacher and student, a bond of trust and mutual respect through which good teachers transmit more than facts and information. When teachers feel physically threatened by students, that kind of relationship simply doesn't exist.

Violence in school, whether verbal or physical, is at heart a threat to education itself. For that reason, students need to know that any assault or threatened assault on a teacher will bring swift retribution.

Likewise, teachers need to know that their safety matters. So do the majority of students who never threaten or commit violence, and whose education is disrupted by violence and fear.

But let's go back to that word respect.

Respect, civility, even manners -- these are not frills, but essential qualities in a diverse, democratic society. Yet babies aren't born with these traits, and they can't learn them without experiencing them. Like love, respect is a feeling that must be cultivated, educated, nurtured. It can't be imposed.

So when we look at our schools, our homes and neighborhoods && and the despair of the younger generation, maybe we should also ask ourselves why they aren't learning respect.

Could it be because we -- as parents, and as a society -- aren't showing it?

In school, what messages do students get from crumbling facilities, inadequate supplies and overcrowded classrooms?

At home, do children get attention and respect, or an exhausted shrug?

In society, do children and their needs get real respect, or lip service?

By all means, let's bemoan the uncivil behavior of the younger generation. But let's also look at the adult attitudes and policies that send signals to children that things like respect and civility are reserved for people who can afford them.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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