Can a $103 fine stop students from swearing?

Students in Hartford, Conn., now have to pay for what they say - literally.

Under a new plan, 2,800 students at two high schools in the district could be subject to $103 fines for uttering profanity on school premises.

Officials there call it a last-ditch effort to create a learning space free from the linguistic irreverence so commonplace in society today.

"We have had kids that just curse out their teachers in the hallways," says Zandralyn Gordon, the acting principal at Hartford Public High School. "That cannot continue."

Her exasperation is shared by administrators across the country. Some want similar "no-swear zones." But the move raises questions: What, exactly, is a swear word? And is it fair to punish students who simply mimic the phrases they hear from their favorite sitcom stars, their parents, and sometimes, even their teachers?

"These experiments are worth a try, to dramatize the level of profanity in schools," says James O'Connor, who founded the Cuss Control Academy in Illinois, which helps people stop swearing. "But I think [such efforts] can only have a long-term impact if they really explain what the problem is. The problem is not so much the words themselves, it's the negative attitude that accompanies them."

The words themselves are copious. In a survey conducted for American Demographics in 2003, more than 60 percent of Americans said they swear in public. According to a Florida State University study last year, incidents of profanity increased by 58 percent from 1997 to 2001 during television's primetime "family hour," 8-9 p.m.

The realities on the airwaves and sidewalks of America have also become reality in the classroom.

In Greenville, S.C., the trend has certainly permeated the district's 14 high schools, 17 middle schools, and 48 elementary schools, says district spokesperson Oby Lyles. "Generally in society you are seeing an increase in vulgar language," he says. "Our schools mirror what happens in society."

Though the district has a strict discipline code for obscenities, school administrators launched an awareness program last year as an additional deterrent. This October, students pledged not to cuss during Profanity Awareness Week, donning bracelets that read "Think before you speak."

"It was really pleasant," says Sam Studley, a senior at Greer High School in Greer, S.C., who signed the pledge. "I mean, for everyone who doesn't swear, it was nice to be able to go down the halls and not have to listen to it."

Experts say some schools are cesspools for swearing because disciplinary action is not strictly enforced. That was not the case in Hartford. Suspensions were handed down for obscenities, but administrators say they were seen as vacations and did nothing to improve unruly behavior. Now, says Ms. Gordon, "they are not going to curse, because it is going to cost."

The fines, issued by police officers in the schools on a case-by-case basis, must be paid or students must appear in court as they would for a speeding ticket.

A main impetus behind the program was to reduce violence - and the suspensions and expulsions that were byproducts of that violence. "We find one kid swearing at another kid, the other kid responds," says Cathy Carpino, the president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, "and it goes from being a verbal altercation to a physical one. It needs to be stopped."

While some schools may look to Hartford to toughen their own policies against a tide of profanity in the media, others have adapted to the modern coarsening of linguistic mores.

At Boca Raton high school in Florida, principal Geoff McKee says that some words, in certain contexts, carried much harsher connotations years ago and no longer require out-of-school suspensions. They revamped their policy accordingly.

Not everyone has responded favorably to the changes. Dr. McKee says that two members of Congress wrote his superintendent, claiming he was "dropping the ball" in preparing the next generation. But he disagrees.

The plan, he explains, is to improve the learning environment, and cut down on unnecessary suspensions. "Really good kids were saying stupid things," he says, "without representing a threat."

Hartford administrators say the threat of fines has already made hallway conversation less vulgar. But some question whether such a plan can have long-term impact. "I'm not sure that fining is going to solve the problem," says Linda Lewis-White, an education professor at Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Many people, she says, have no idea what profane words mean or where they come from. She teaches her students to educate children on the etymology of obscenities as a preventive measure. "Once you demystify a word and bring it out in the open, it loses its power," she says.

But Gordon, the principal at Hartford High, says her students are aware of the intent of their words. "They know jolly-well what they are saying," she says. "This is our attempt to change their behavior."

So far, about 40 tickets have been issued. And Gordon says she hasn't received a single complaint from parents, which is a telling sign for a principal. She and others caution that it's still early, though.

"It's an experiment," say Terry D'Italia, the spokesman for the Hartford Public Schools. "There is probably not a high school in America that doesn't understand what this problem is like."

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