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Civility Policies Surfacing in Schools
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Hoping to create more relaxed conversations among teachers, parents, and students, Mercer Island (Washington) and Issaquah (Washington) school districts recently adopted guidelines for civil communication, which are designed to help people make their positions known courteously. Included: Link to a school district's civility policy.

Two school districts in Washington are bucking the increasingly common "in-your-face" model of dealing with conflict. They are introducing civility codes that provide ground rules for communication among teachers, parents, and students.

The two school districts, Mercer Island and Issaquah School District No. 411, are providing training to help administrators and staff implement the codes as well as offering community workshops. Both districts also sent notices about the policies to parents.

"The media and popular culture seem to exemplify the angry argument as the model of communication," says Bill Keim, Mercer Island's superintendent of schools. "We don't think that's productive. We want to show that people can disagree but do it civilly."

Mary Waggoner, spokesperson for the Issaquah district, says its policy evolved from the process of setting goals for the school system. "People had discussions about ways they could enhance the safe, nurturing culture in the school environment," Waggoner tells Education World. "In this age of shock-jocks on the radio and Jerry Springer on television, we saw processes that were not conducive to problem solving. We thought it was a good time to help students become good problem solvers and to help them understand that they don't have to get in anyone's face."

These days, more people at public meetings -- including those that are not school-related -- are displaying more-aggressive behavior than in the past, says Margo Campbell, president of the Issaquah Education Association, the local teachers' union.

"These guidelines heighten people's awareness," Campbell tells Education World.

Click to read School Board Adopts Civility Policy -- Issaquah School District No. 411
No one incident prompted the creation of the Mercer Island policy, according to Keim. Rather, the board of education requested guidelines after board members and teachers association members reported some strained parent-teacher conversations. "The board had heard of situations in which communications had not been productive; [situations] that had left staff and parents feeling negative," Keim says, "but this was not an attempt to curb unruly parents."

The intent in writing the guidelines was to focus on communications among staff and parents. It became clear while drafting them, however, that they could apply to students as well. "One of the concerns in developing the policy is that adults should be models for kids," Keim says. In addition to general guidelines, the code includes specific sections for staff, students, and parents.

Among the recommendations in the Mercer Island policy: Focus on issues, not individuals; offer solutions, not blame; and document conversations.

The Issaquah policy defines uncivil behavior and lists steps that parents, staff, and students should follow if they think they have been targets of uncivil conduct. "The code covers the broad scope of all interactions," Waggoner says. "In situations where emotions can be high, it helps staff defuse conflicts."

As in Mercer Island, no specific incident gave rise to the Issaquah policy; it was inspired by a series of communications complaints, says Waggoner. "Teachers expressed concern about aggressive parents, parents said teachers were unresponsive and unhelpful, and students said they were not sure how to deal with sarcastic and intimidating teachers."

Parents and staff members were involved in reviewing existing policies and making recommendations. Judy Brewer, a committee member who is also a parent of two Issaquah school system graduates, says that after listening to anecdotes from teachers, parents, and students, the committee decided some guidelines were necessary.

Jane Brammer, a parent of two Issaquah students, tells Education World that although she thinks it is unfortunate such a communication policy is needed, at least now everyone knows the standards up front.

Information about the new Issaquah policy was turned over to the school system's intra-district student council to disseminate to students. The school system has planned a series of training sessions for staff members.

Having these types of policies is "a sign of the times," Brammer says. "These guidelines should be common courtesies. But it is good that there are guidelines, so everyone is following the same set of rules."

Other communities also are showing interest in the policies. As word has spread, Mercer Island has begun receiving telephone requests for copies of its guidelines, according to Keim. Staff members do not know how many other people have accessed the code from their Web site. "This seems to show that this [issue] is not isolated to here or even to Washington state," Keim says.