Originally created 12/01/99

Schools stress character education



AIKEN -- South Carolina's attorney general says the only way to curb school crime is to teach character along with reading, writing and arithmetic -- and make it mandatory.

"Character education lies at the core of getting common sense and values back into South Carolina schools," Charlie Condon said when the state Schools Task Force called for an assault on school violence earlier this week.

The task force did not specifically recommend character-building in the classroom, but the attorney general did.

"We must do more than teach minds, we must change hearts and build character," he said.

Thirty-two of the state's 96 districts already have character education, including Aiken and Edgefield counties. Schools in those districts started teaching it at least four years ago, and the decision to do so came from the teachers.

Character education revolves around pillars or building blocks of character -- universally accepted values void of any sectarian influence. And they are transmitted by the familiar methods favored by today's teachers: posters and banners, role playing and sharing, storytelling and "words of the month," stressing a different value to strive toward every few weeks.

In addition to character education, Mr. Condon said school uniforms, resource officers in every middle and high school and immunity from liability for teachers who demand discipline from students can help restore values in schools.

"New laws or new government programs by themselves won't stop school crime," Mr. Condon said. "Old-fashioned common sense and the old-age sense of right and wrong will."

In a field as susceptible to fads as public education , character education now is the hottest thing going. Some form of it is being taught in all 50 states. Georgia and Alabama have made such programs mandatory, and more states now are debating legislation that would follow their lead.

Last year, the federal Department of Education handed out $5.2 million to schools for character education, and the figure is expected to double next year.

Politicians, too, have discovered the elixir of classroom values. Recently, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-New Mexico, proposed legislation to provide an additional $125 million over five years for character education programs. At a school violence conference, President Clinton endorsed character education. And former Vice President Dan Quayle has expressed his own ideas on how to proceed: "I suggest students start with the Ten Commandments."

GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush says children "must be educated in reading and writing, but also in right and wrong."

Those are almost the exact words of Mr. Condon, who has endorsed Mr. Bush. He also stressed that mentoring programs also play a key role for pupils who might not receive sufficient value training at home.

"Parents possess the primary responsibility for teaching children values, but schools must reinforce the efforts of parents," Mr. Condon said.

Donna Forrest couldn't agree more.

The guidance counselor at Merriwether Elementary School in Edgefield County has written two books on character education and speaks at national seminars on the issue.

"School is where students spend seven hours of their day, so why not reinforce character traits."

What she doesn't understand is why everyone has gotten enthusiastic about character education all of a sudden. The concept has been around since the 1800s, and it's nothing more than teaching pupils the life skills they need to survive in the working world, she said.

Reach Chasiti Kirkland at (803) 279-6895.