Would you please not repeat that?

Teachers target the 'anytime, anywhere' expletives of students

Kenny Nguyen doesn't hesitate to use the F-word now and then. He'll also refer to classmates in less-than-printable terms.

"To us, it's just the way we talk to each other; it's not offensive," says Kenny, who is a high school junior in Boston.

Kenny's attitude is common among teens in America's high schools. Cussing has become so mainstream that it's often not even noticed among peers.

"With teenagers, they really are in the midst of a cursing culture. They hear it everywhere," says James O'Connor, author of "Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing." "I will ask an entire student body, 'How many of you swear?' and it's got to be 99 percent who raise their hands gleefully, proudly."

In many schools, teachers are so consumed with other duties that sanitizing mouths is low on the priority list. But at least some educators across America are tired of having their ears burned.

Take Larry Hensley-Marschand, principal of Southport High School in Indianapolis. His staff was fed up with student swearing, but didn't have the time or desire to fill out the cumbersome paperwork required to cite students.

So Dr. Hensley-Marschand thought up a new line of attack. He streamlined the citation process, and instead of giving lip service to punishing vocabulary-challenged kids, he took concrete action.

In the fall of 1999, the principal instituted a policy that thrives today: When students spout off, they are immediately taken to the dean's office, and their parents are called and told what they said.

The second offense brings an in-school suspension. If a student verbally assaults someone in conjunction with a threat, he or she may be taken to a juvenile center.

Since the rule came into effect, the number of offenders in the dean's office has dropped by 30 to 50 percent. The middle school also participates in the program.

Hensley-Marschand is quick to note that curbing cussing was not the only cause for the increased civility in his school's halls. But, he says, it certainly was a catalyst.

While anecdotal evidence suggests more-frequent swearing, at least among students, Prof. Timothy Jay, author of "Why we Curse," compared cursing frequency and word usage of people in 1986 and 1996 and found little difference.

Linguists point out that profanity is embedded in culture. For instance, it's sometimes considered appropriate in response to pain or stress. It also changes as the culture changes.

"I don't know what profanity is any longer, because we've so detoxified the Christian vocabulary that the GD and JC has sort of gone the way of bloody and gadzooks," says James Twitchell, an English professor at the University of Florida.

Professor Jay also points out that teens are not well equipped with the proper language to talk about sexuality in a society that still has shades of Puritanism.

Many kids want to go against the grain of authority, too. "The minute we can find somebody saying 'We don't say that,' then [students] know exactly what must be said," Professor Twitchell says.

What is particularly telling, linguists and educators note, is how willingly kids use obscenities around adults.

"Shame codes are not invoked over these bits of language," Twitchell says, noting that kids are not reluctant to swear in public largely because social norms have changed.

"It has something to do with changing ways that younger and older people interact," says Dennis Barron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There's more in-your-faceness or less concern about what you can say in public than there used to be."

This has led to more swearing. But interestingly, swearing hasn't lost its negative connotation.

When Mr. Barron asks undergraduates what is the No. 1 thing they would change about language, he gets the following responses:

1. Spellings should be changed.

2. The words "you know" are overused.

3. There's too much swearing.

Julissa Mejia, a sophomore at Brighton High School in Boston, says swearing around adults depends on students' comfort level with them. She says it isn't uncommon for students to swear at teachers in a heated moment (and sometimes vice-versa).

She also says that sometimes girls' mouths are fouler than boys,' explaining that the "ladies don't swear" theory is dated at best.

Emily Jarvis, who attends Edison High School in Fresno, Calif., says that the frequency of swearing depends on the house in which you are raised. (Mr. O'Connor says that 70 to 75 percent of children say their parents swear.)

O'Connor says to tame teens' tongues, parents and teachers must stress that being an individual (something teens are drawn to) can come in part from separating yourself from the swearing pack.

Dr. Jay, on the other hand, says teachers should use a combination of rewards and punishments to deal with inappropriate language.

Send e-mail to hartilll@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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