Legislators Weigh Morality Bills To Deter School Violence
By John Nagy, Staff Writer; Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
Michigan, where six-year-old Kayla Rolland was shot to death by a six-year-old classmate last month, is the latest state to consider authorizing local school boards to post the Ten Commandments in piblic schools.
Ten high-profile school shootings in three years, the most horrific of which was the Columbine High School massacre, have many adult Americans fearful of a moral vacuum in schools and among the nation's youth.
In many of the fifty statehouses, this clamor has translated into a reawakened interest in morality-based legislation. Lawmakers have debated authorizing the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms, providing moments of silence for prayer or meditation, mandating student respect for teachers and administrators, encouraging values or character education, and hacking away at what some perceive as the negative cultural influences emanating from television and computer screens.
Mary Fulton of the Education Commission on the States says there have always been efforts to legislate morality, and that these efforts traditionally have been most popular in the Bible Belt states of the South.
"But there is probably more attention being paid now to what people feel is a lack of moral foundation in the school," Fulton told Stateline.org. "Before people thought there should be no values in schools, but now folks are saying wait a minute. Moral instruction doesn't have to happen only at home."
John Mitchell, deputy director of educational issues for the one-million members-strong American Federation of Teachers union, says that while moral values are critical, public schools are limited resources for values-based education.
"There are some things that the school can only go so far in ... before you're teaching religion. We can ask the churches to pick up a big portion of the values education," he said.
In a January poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, 75 percent of the public said that schools should teach "values, respect and courtesy."
To date, only three states -- Indiana, Kentucky and South Dakota -- have enacted bills authorizing the posting of the Ten Commandments. Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma have considered legislation that would permit posting the tablets as a historical document on public property, but have not approved it.
In Colorado, site of the Columbine high school massacre last April 20, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, the legislature tabled the matter in January after it encountered stiff opposition in committee.
"Just because the Ten Commandments is on the bulletin board at school doesn't mean that anyone is going to look at it. It's not as great as some efforts that could be mounted," said Jane Grady of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.
So-called school prayer bills, authorizing or encouraging a moment of silence at the start of the day, were introduced within the last year in Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore backs a moment of silence bill passed by the legislature in March, and sent it to the Senate for approval of amendments on Monday.
Over the last several decades, a small but growing movement has tried to put secular values into school curriculum.
Several states, including Alabama Florida, Georgia and Virginia, require schools to incorporate character lessons in their curriculum. Esther Schaeffer, executive director of the Character Education Partnership (CEP), says some form of the curriculum which focuses on ethical questions and modeling good values, is practiced in every state.
In 1995 the Department of Education began awarding grants for the "Partnerships in Character Education Pilot Project." The program, aimed at enhancing civic virtue and good citizenship, has grown to include 27 states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kentucky, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.
In the weeks after the Columbine tragedy, the Louisiana legislature agreed to compel students to address teachers and school administrators as "sir" or ma'am." Several states have considered variations of the good manners legislation, including Alabama, Georgia, Maine, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. But Maine so far is the only state besides Louisiana to require students by law to be polite.