Doubts about character program

Effort in Carroll spurs concerns among county employees

Promotion of character traits in Carroll runs into questions

May 19, 2001|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Carroll commissioners are preparing to teach county employees about good character, hoping lessons learned at work will have a trickle-down effect on friends and family and perhaps correct some of the social ills - drug addiction, juvenile crime and school violence - that they blame on bad child-rearing.

Some Carroll workers are ambivalent about - and a few insulted by - the notion of receiving monthly instruction in character. Others are concerned that promotions or job retention could depend on how passionately they embrace the commissioners' latest initiative.

The commissioners are not sure how they will structure Carroll's character initiative, the pet program of Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who said she got the idea last month at a three-day conference sponsored by the fundamentalist Judeo-Christian group International Association of Character Cities.

"Character First," the character-development program promoted and sold by the Oklahoma City-based IACC, has been adopted by more than 90 localities in 16 countries around the world, including the United States, Australia, Taiwan and Uganda, according to IACC Director Gerald Coury.

"I view this program as an investment in our community because it will have a positive influence on families and children," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "What we might spend on this program would certainly be less expensive than what we would pay to treat one child for substance abuse. If we don't react to problems and try to prevent them, we spend more money trying to correct them."

Neither Coury nor the cities that praise the program could point to any figures - lower absenteeism, a decrease in workers' compensation cases, higher productivity or a dip in juvenile crime or substance abuse rates - as proof that the character-development program works for government agencies.

Leadership experts warn that such initiatives can backfire, making some employees feel isolated or, worse, attacked.

"My concern is, `Whose values are being transmitted, and is it a truly open conversation about which values count?'" asked Douglas A. Hicks, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

"Character talk ... can be used as a way to impose Christian values on people of Jewish faith, the Hindu religion or of no religious tradition. It can also be used to blame people in society for their problems, telling them they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they work on improving themselves, while avoiding the social and economic realities that make life difficult," Hicks said.

`Nothing to do with religion'

Coury insists that IACC's goal is "not to push character qualities on people. Our goal is to focus on an understanding of what it takes to be successful." The Character First program, he added, "has nothing to do with religion."

Formed in 1998, IACC is a spinoff of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a family ministry with headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., that urges youths to practice disciplines such as tithing and memorizing Scripture. The institute also offers seminars "based on the Biblical principles upon which the nation of the United States and its law system are founded."

Carroll's commissioners, who have adopted a list of "Employee Golden Rules" advocating mutual respect and consideration, recently changed the county's employee evaluation forms to include an assessment of a worker's ability to "deal with anger, frustration and disappointment" and to "lead by example."

The creation of a character-development program for the county's 605 municipal workers is a natural extension of these initiatives, the commissioners said.

"The idea of being a character county is that we just want to help people to be the best they can be, whether individually or as an employee," said Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier. "Our goal is simply to focus on a character trait each month and try to get that character trait to permeate throughout the community."

Commissioners said they envision banners on county streets, and posters in classrooms and at the county office building, reminding employees and their families of the trait they should be emulating in a particular month.

It might be decisiveness one month, benevolence the next.

Can results be measured?

How such traits will be taught is undecided. The instruction might follow IACC's plan, might be a variant of that or might more closely resemble a character education program that has been taught in Carroll schools for the past two years.

Whether the success or failure of such instruction can ever be measured remains to be seen. Still, the program has attracted nearly a hundred municipalities with its promise to help people become better people.

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