Putting a Gag on Abusive Words Challenges Schools at All Levels

KNIVES, guns, and fights aren't the only kinds of violence confronting teachers and administrators in some schools in the United States. There's also verbal violence, and it can be found in any setting, urban, suburban, or rural.

``Abusive language has become a very difficult issue for teachers,'' says Bill Martin, director of communications for the National Education Association (NEA), the country's largest teachers' union. He says teachers he's in touch with are shocked at what students ``feel they have a right to say to them.''

Teachers are hearing ``student-to-student conversations that make their ears burn,'' Mr. Martin says.

``It's pretty prevalent,'' says Bert Cady, who has taught math for 22 years in Walpole, Mass., a suburb southwest of Boston. ``There was a time when, if a kid used a swear word, it would bring some kind of discipline,'' he says. If every incident were punished now, Mr. Cady says, a teacher ``could get nothing else done.''

The situation is little better far from the cities. Dennis Palmer is a counselor at the middle school in Woodstock, Vt. This resort town has a population of slightly more than 1,000, though its middle and high schools draw students from many surrounding towns as well. ``You hear it in the hallways, and sometimes even in counseling,'' says Mr. Palmer, who recalls one boy who referred to a teacher with a hard-core expletive as he refused to go back to a classroom.

Palmer, who is a former middle-school principal, proclaims himself ``kind of flabbergasted'' at what he hears out of the mouths of students.

While acknowledging that profanity is a problem in many schools, Jim Burns, director of membership services at the National Middle School Association, views ``inappropriate'' vulgarity as part of an adolescent stage seventh and eighth graders go through. ``A seventh grade boy will do things out of the company of parents he wouldn't do otherwise'' as he tries to move ``away from the family into a peer group,'' Mr. Burns says.

While some kids hurl bad language at teachers - behavior that still can bring trips to the principal or suspension - in the ``vast majority'' of middle schools, that's not a problem in Burns's view.

A basic question may be whether the pervasiveness of foul language is giving schools one more thing to deal with, other than their mandated work of instruction. ``If a teacher takes two minutes out of each class to deal with this,'' Palmer says, ``that translates into a loss of two weeks of the school year.''

He sees a number of factors in society contributing to the problem, including plentiful profanity and violence in the entertainment media and the declining influence of two institutions that have traditionally taught and enforced values - the family and the church.

The language teachers take issue with may be common on TV or in movies, or at home, says John Lamel, director of services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals and a former principal. ``The student thinks, sometimes, no big deal,'' he says. Mr. Lamel recalls instances when teachers, too, got in trouble for losing their temper and unleashing some invective at students.

Kids hear it all around them and ask, ``Why can't I say it?'' Palmer says. In his view, schools are forced to leap into the breach and address a decline in civilized speech.

That applies to grades below the middle and high school levels as well. ``There's been an increase in the use of profanity among young children,'' says Samuel Sava, who heads the National Association of Elementary School Principals. ``They seem to copy it from adults'' who use vulgar terms in everyday conversation, he says.

Mr. Sava notes that polls have shown an increased willingness among parents to let the schools move into values instruction. But when it comes to habits of language, ``we can't do this alone,'' he emphasizes. ``It has to be the primary responsibility of parents, but the schools can help.''

Cady observes, ``Generally, kids don't know how to relate with each other, how to converse with each other.'' There used to be such a thing as ``locker-room talk,'' he says, but but now students ``seem to use it everywhere.''

But not all kids, he and Palmer say. Students doing better academically tend to watch their language. ``I've never heard a swear word out of their mouths,'' Cady says of the honor students he teaches. And Palmer says there's ``an element'' that doesn't use profanity at all, which he attributes to the absence of such language at home.

And not all teachers may feel equally concerned about foul language. It's particularly hard on longtime teachers who remember the cleaner language of past years, NEA's Martin says, and on substitute teachers who traditionally bear the brunt of students' abuse.

Palmer wonders if it wouldn't be good to have a course on mediation ``early on, maybe the seventh grade,'' to teach youngsters the skills of civil communication and argument. Such courses are already part of the antiviolence programs being tried in some inner-city communities.

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