Rude Reception

Manners are the least of our worries in Anaheim schools

About 10 minutes into the Anaheim Union High School District's Jan. 18 meeting, the school board paused for a less-than-dramatic agenda item: the expulsion of 11 students. With no debate and no explanation, the board swiftly and unanimously voted to kick out students 00-41, 00-42, 00-44, 00-46, 00-47, 00-51, 00-52, 00-53, 00-54, 00-55 and 00-56.

The vote was just another symptom of the Anaheim district's decline. More obvious examples include rotting buildings, more portables than an Arkansas trailer park, overcrowding, lack of books and filthy bathrooms. Only a third of Anaheim's high school graduates go on to college.

Board president Katherine Smith doesn't like what she sees.

"In this country, there is a generation that came after me—I grew up during the war—that doesn't realize how things used to be when this country was a caring, civilized country," Smith told a standing-room-only audience.

Smith's solution to the depressing conditions imposed on Anaheim's 21st-century students? Old-fashioned etiquette!

"I believe that teaching our children about decorum will keep them heads above their peers," she said. "Those who learn to stand up and greet an adult in a polite way will be the ones who get the job."

Smith dubbed her idea "Stand and Respect" when she proposed the Miss Manners-style program last month. Since then, Smith and her idea have been highlighted by television interviewers from local stations to the BBC and CNN. According to Smith, 60 percent of callers to a CNN nationwide poll favored her idea.

"About 98 percent of the e-mail we get at the school district is also positive," Smith asserted at the meeting. "The only concern people have is the interruption of classroom activity caused by having students stand up when an adult enters the room. . . . But I see this as a tributary on the road to the education of our students. It's all a part of our children being the most they can be."

Seconds after Smith made her pitch official at the school board meeting, however, a string of speakers denounced it—and not just because they were worried about the interruption of students' class work.

"Our school board should pay attention to the real issues confronting our district: overcrowding, lack of books and filthy bathrooms," argued Jessica Castro, the mother of a student in the district. "'Stand and Respect' is a wonderful idea—for 1940. Whatever happened to reading, writing and arithmetic? Students have to come out of this district able to meet challenges with their ability to think, to articulate, to comprehend—not by standing up and saying, 'Yes, sir!'"

When the audience finished clapping, Marla Hamblin, a public defender, stepped to the podium and said she was offended by Smith's assertion that things were better two generations ago. "I want to tell the board president that our country is still a caring, civilized place," she said. "You can't legislate respect."

Hamblin argued that "having students stand up when the 'massa' enters the room" has nothing to do with respect. "Why do you think teachers should be stood up to automatically?" she continued. "Why don't they earn it like everybody else? If you adopt this policy, I will do whatever I can to oppose this legislation, which reminds me of Nazi Germany."

At that point, board member Harald Martin—an Anaheim police officer who has gained notoriety for his attempts to bring federal immigration officers into the city's schools to investigate students' citizenship status—jumped in to defend Smith.

"I think people are taking this way out of context," Martin asserted. "Every person deserves respect instantaneously. They don't have to earn it. They deserve it. . . .It's frustrating to see that folks don't understand that Mrs. Smith isn't trying to change the world—and certainly isn't trying to change it to Nazi Germany."

Martin's attempt to downplay the fascistic aspects of "Stand and Respect" didn't sway Buena Park teacher Margina Berg. She recalled how, as a Cypress High School student in 1979, she was sent to Argentina as part of a student exchange. Three years earlier, the Latin American country fell under the grip of the military dictators who launched what has become known as the Dirty War.

"The whole country was under military control, and everybody did what they were told," Berg explained. "In school, we were forced to stand up whenever a teacher or adult entered the room. Wow! I really learned a lot of respect by being forced to do that 22 times a day. Does the board also plan to re-institute corporal punishment? Leave that to the military, where it belongs!"

Because of the angry reaction—and the absence of two board members—Smith's proposal was shelved. Smith promised to meet with parents, teachers and students before resubmitting her plan.

But Scott Akamine, the school board's student representative, told the board that the opinion of most high school students runs against "Stand and Respect,'' which is perceived as an "extreme" idea. Akamine said students don't object to being taught respect, but they believe that respect is already a strong part of the district's curriculum. He pointed out that students begin every school day with a moment of silence—during which they are supposed to focus on positive character traits.

The moment of silence, as it turns out, follows another ritual the school district has adopted thanks to Smith's urging: the so-called "Golden Rule." That's when a teacher or principal reads an inspiring quotation over the school's PA system—in a soothing voice reminiscent of Saturday Night Live's "Deep Thoughts With Jack Handy."

A day before the board meeting, a KABC-TV news crew interviewed Smith about "Stand and Respect." As the reporter explained Smith's role in implementing the "Golden Rule," the camera focused on a classroom loudspeaker, which blared the following deep thought for Anaheim's high school students: "You can make a big difference in this world if you just choose to be a good person."

From there, the camera pulled back to show a classroom full of bored-looking students who—like the brainwashed GI automatons from The Manchurian Candidate—were practicing how to stand in unison and mutter the words "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am."

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