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Schools chief to preach civility
Two-thirds of Americans believe society is more uncivil and that things are only getting worse.

Tom Changnon, the superintendent of Stanislaus County schools, believes there is hope and thinks Stanislaus County can help reverse the growing trend of others being uncivil toward one another.

When attending conference at other parts of the state, others may mention to him that Stanislaus County ranks high in auto thefts in the nation. But he wants his home county to be known "as the first county to practice civility in our schools and among our citizens."

On Nov. 2 Changnon and the Stanislaus County Office of Education will launch a new "Choosing Civility" program in all public schools in the county, in an attempt to teach 12 top principles in behaving nicely. At a 7:30 a.m. breakfast with 220 educators, ethics and character topic speaker Michael Josephson will address the subject of civility. At noon Josephson will address business leaders and service clubs at the Doubletree Inn.

Changnon and numerous leaders chose 12 principles to focus on derived from P.M. Forni's book, "Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct." Through a donation from MOCSE Credit Union, 900 copies of the book were purchased and distributed to school administrators and community, faith and business leaders. The leaders were asked to read the book and pick their favorites of the 25 "rules." A roundtable discussion came up with the top 12:

• Listen.

• Respect other people's time.

• Don't shift responsibility and blame.

• Accept and give praise.

• Respect others' opinions.

• Acknowledge others.

• Speak kindly.

• Apologize sincerely.

• Refrain from idle complaints.

• Think the best.

• Accept and give constructive criticism.

• Don't speak ill.

"Whereas our other two initiatives focussed primarily on schools, we want this to go countywide," said Changnon. "We want this to really encompass adults because the young people need to see adults modeling appropriate behavior."

Many schools in the county are already using the "Character Counts" program, teaching various aspects of civil behavior. But Changnon expects the new initiative to add to the discussion.

He expects to give teachers a way to incorporate talk about civility into school assignments.

"We don't want to add to an already packed program but if a teacher is going to do an essay on language arts and says, 'I wonder what we'll write about?, let's write about listening and what does listening mean to you?' So they can incorporate the 12 principles."

Changnon said it became apparent to him that his office can be a force for good in getting a public dialogue going about civility. He recently attended local school board meetings in which angry parents lost their cool in front of their children.

"I was very disappointed to see the behavior of adults at these meetings," said Changnon. "...I came back and said, 'We're going to do something about civility' because as I attend these meetings I would see these parents with their children in tow and that's what these children are seeing; they're seeing adults behave like this and this becomes their norm."

Changnon illustrates the wholesale spread of uncivil behavior, relating an incident that happened to him at a red light. The schools chief was next to a young driver in a pickup who was talking on a cell phone; Changnon looked at the driver and gestured that talking on a phone while driving was a no-no. The young man threw down the phone and flipped off Changnon with both hands. Changon related the incident to a co-worker who suggested he was lucky we wasn't shot.

"How sad in our society that we've come to that," said Changnon. "We have to do something."

Teaching civility will "be a challenge," he acknowledges. Television shows like Jerry Springer model and encourage people to be uncivil toward one another, he said. Courteous behavior may have been a trademark of past generations but he said "the fracturing of the family" has resulted in a breakdown in values and the teaching of values.

Changnon said the county schools office conducted two prior successful campaigns, including the Every Day Counts initiative which netted $3 million in additional revenues for increased student attendance and increased test scores over a two-year period.

Changnon realizes that unlike attendance improvement efforts and fitness goals, it's difficult measuring something less tangible as character.

"We know it's going to take some time and at least a two-year commitment on our part."