Ten Commandments posting is a step toward civility

June 24, 1999|By Linda Chavez

THE CULTURAL elite could hardly contain its derision last week when the House passed an amendment to permit the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. The amendment, attached to a juvenile justice bill, was sponsored by freshman Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, whose district includes Littleton's Columbine High School.

The Washington Post snidely editorialized: "The House did not entertain measures to make parents pay more attention to their children, or to expand mental health coverage, or to encourage jocks to treat Goths with more respect, but it discussed just about every other Columbine explanation." New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd snickered at Congress' prescription for teen violence: "Take two tablets; slap them above every blackboard in American classrooms." And virtually every commentator agreed that the law will be struck down by the courts.

They're probably right on the last point. The courts have been prime movers in the cultural revolution of the past 25 years, which has led to a breakdown in discipline and civility in the public schools. In addition to the courts' assault on religious expression, federal courts have diminished school officials' authority to remove disruptive students and to enforce codes of behavior and dress.

Just this month, a federal court in Richmond, Va., ordered a local school district to permit a 16-year-old boy to return to school despite his outlandish attire, which violated the school's dress code. The boy dyed his hair bright blue and frequently wore a skirt and ghoulish makeup to imitate the violent rock singer Marilyn Manson. In a strange twist, the court ruled that although the boy could come back to classes, school authorities could search him before he entered school each morning. It seems the young man had previously rigged a brick above a doorway, which nearly hit a teacher, and sports a tattoo that reads, "Kill 'em all." Liberals would like to think there is no connection between anti-social dress or language and antisocial behavior. But, of course, there is. Students who pierce their eyebrows, wear rings through their noses, dye their hair purple and paint their faces to look like cadavers are doing more than exhibiting bad taste. They're screaming their contempt for social norms. They're rule breakers, and they want everyone to know it.

Schools are rife with students who curse, make out in the hallways, sleep in class and threaten each other and their teachers. And teachers and school administrators are largely impotent to do much about it. Congress should explore ways to return authority to school principals and allow teachers and administrators to enforce civil behavior and appropriate dress and manners in the nation's public schools. The trick will be crafting rules that will withstand the courts' twisted reading of the Constitution.

But perhaps there is room for hope. A few years ago, a spiraling violent crime rate that seemed destined to continue its 30-year upward climb suddenly began to plateau and even decline in most major cities. Most analysts agree that the turn-around came, in part, because the police got tougher in enforcing the laws against minor infractions, as well as levying harsher penalties for major crimes.

New York City's policy represents the best example. The police cracked down on subway fare cheaters, and the city began removing graffiti from buses and subway cars. The city cleaned up vacant lots, fixed broken windows in abandoned buildings and evicted squatters. Even many of New York's notorious legions of homeless men and women, many of them drug addicts or mentally ill, decamped from the city's doorways to shelters under stricter enforcement of city ordinances against panhandling.

Congress will have another opportunity to affect the school environment when it considers the massive re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act later this year.

Congress could make a real difference by requiring school districts that receive federal funds to come up with student standards of conduct that enforce proper discipline and decorum. If such an approach helped bring down the crime rate in New York, maybe it would make U.S. schools safer and more civil.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/24/99

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