Make civility a priority

May 05, 2004|By Stephen Wallis

THE MEDIA accounts of the recent restroom episode at a Howard County high school, where youngsters were alleged to have raped a student only to have her reportedly recant her story, have missed an important commentary on the incident, one that is lost in similar occurrences across the country.

That these boys and the girl would be brazen enough to engage in such behavior with total disregard for propriety is an assault on the remainder of a school's disciplined, respected student population, its faculty and staff, its parents and its business community.

The police and prosecutor's office, in fact, handled the matter well, based on the facts as they had them at the time, both from the alleged victim and the hospital staff report that was provided. The system should well work in just that fashion if the safety and security of a community are to be a priority.

Law enforcement officials continued to provide expert service in their investigation and handling of the matter when they expeditiously decided to remove charges based on additional information.

Parents, educators, teachers unions, legislators and students around the country have for years decried the lack of civility in our schools -- urban, suburban and rural alike. Many will argue that it continues to be the pivotal reason for this country's lackluster educational performance.

Such behavior might well occur -- and does throughout the country -- in any school on any given day. This is among the reasons why it is incumbent upon every school everywhere to emphasize the importance of an appropriate teaching-learning environment that emphasizes compassion, the value of hard work, respect, responsibility, civility and character.

Rhetoric at the national level with respect to "setting rigorous standards," establishing high school "exit exams," eliminating the "achievement gap," etc., is pure folly when we continue to ignore the main reason such standards and measures are not achievable.

Schools that work hard to provide an appropriate school culture need to be supported by school system headquarters and the larger community. This needs to be supported with an equally aggressive culture of achievement embraced by all students and all communities that reinforces daily the importance of an environment that is conducive to meaningful academic and extracurricular involvement.

It is noteworthy to review the academic and behavioral history of student offenders nationally. On rare occasions do we see ill behavior -- sometimes all too tragic -- performed by youngsters who showed no signs of anti-social behavior. More often than not, these incidents are exhibited by those who frequently feel they can take license to engage in repeated disrespectful, disruptive behavior in our public schools.

It is equally noteworthy to understand that the first and most important teacher in any child's life is his or her parent; for that youngster, Mom, Dad or both is the single most important influence. Those students whose parent(s) take an active interest in a child's education -- working in partnership with the school -- are far more successful, by any measure.

Ill behavior is indigenous to no particular race, socioeconomic level or age. And the issue at hand should not be debauched by another using such a reason either to explain his or her behavior or escape responsibility for it.

Successful public schools dot the American landscape, and in these schools all children can and do learn. Schools and communities throughout the country need to wage a war on incivility. Taking a nurturingly aggressive stance on menacing behavior would provide an enriching, encouraging environment for the majority of our youngsters.

Further, such a stance would restore a meaningful teaching-learning culture in which a sense of decorum would cultivate achievable standards, less interference in instruction, lower dropout rates and a better-educated work force. America's parents, schoolchildren and teachers richly deserve our national and local attention to this matter.

There were, to be sure, victims that accompanied the outrageous behavior and breach of personal responsibility in Howard County; none of them, however, was in that restroom at the time.

Stephen Wallis is principal of Harper's Choice Middle School in Howard County.

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