Features

Character comeback

National | Schools are getting around to teaching kids right from wrong-but can it work when God is ignored?

Issue: "Fleeing Hurricane Floyd," Sept. 25, 1999

Last school year was a rough one for 7th graders in the Cannon Falls School District just outside Minneapolis-but maybe it was rougher on their teachers. When a year of middle-school disciplinary eruptions ended with a 7th-grade boy shoving a male teacher up against a wall and hurling curses in his face, teachers decided it was time to do something to head off the possibility of further violence. But they didn't opt for physical security measures like guards or metal detectors. And they didn't convene emotional peer powwows or conflict-resolution training.

Instead, Cannon Falls high-school teacher Amy Dombeck and her colleagues chose what they considered to be a more lasting solution: teaching kids good character. "Schools haven't been willing to step up to the plate and talk about topics that really mean anything-like respect, honesty, and responsibility," she says. But at Cannon Falls teachers are crafting lesson plans that focus on behavior, using academic subjects as launching pads for discussing moral and ethical issues.

According to Esther Schaeffer, executive director of Character Education Partnership (CEP) in Washington, D.C., many schools are doing the same. While the popular press reports on increased security measures, conflict-resolution classes, and gun control (the fix du jour), many public schools are trying to reemphasize what was minimized in the 1960s: an emphasis on personal responsibility, self-control, and respect for authority. The aim: to stop school violence before it starts.

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In particular, schools want to avoid a repeat of violence like the Columbine shooting spree that claimed the life of Cassie Bernall. Cassie, who on April 20 died with 12 other students at the hands of schoolmates Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, was the 17-year-old who unequivocally proclaimed her faith in God while staring down the barrel of a gun. Last week, Plough Publishing House, a small Pennsylvania-based publisher, released She Said Yes, a book written by Cassie's mother Misty. The book chronicles not only Cassie's unlikely martyrdom but also how she once was headed down the same dark path-a path that included plotting murder-as the boys who masterminded the Columbine massacre.

Ironically, the death of Cassie and others has created a character-education boomlet: "Character education didn't get broad attention before all the school violence of the last year and a half," says Ms. Schaeffer, whose nonsectarian group works with educators in all 50 states. After the April school shootings in Colorado, inquiries at CEP increased sharply. A spokesman at the U.S. Department of Education says the number of state educators calling for information on a federal grant program for values-based curricula (the Character Education Program) also spiked after the Columbine tragedy.

The spike is ironic because in She Said Yes, Cassie Bernall's mother Misty emphasizes that only Christ, not sweet sentiments, brought back Cassie from a murderous narcissism. She Said Yes includes letters from one of Cassie's friends that muse over plans for murdering Cassie's parents-letters that, after her parents discovered them, eventually led them to enroll Cassie in a Christian high school and send her to a Christian youth retreat. When she left home for that weekend retreat, it was as a brooding, often suicidal castaway marooned on a hated island of Christian education. When she returned, it was as the regenerated young lady who would, two years later, face down imminent death to proclaim her faith.

So far, none of the character-education programs WORLD found in public schools links issues of character and morality with God, or even a vague "higher power." And some observers say trying to build moral kids in a religious vacuum is like making bricks without straw: There's nothing to hold the whole thing together.

Barry Miller, who is Jewish and a family psychologist at Pace University in Manhattan, agrees: "Without the concept of a higher power, how can you get the moral message across?" he asks. "It's important to get the sense back into the classroom that there's some purpose that's higher than ourselves." But CEP's Ms. Schaeffer, who is also Jewish, does not feel children must be taught to link moral behavior with God. Morality, she says, "goes with the territory of being human."

Steve Monsma, an evangelical and a professor at Pepperdine University, says: "When one cuts issues of morality free from their roots in religion, much of the strength goes out of them. I get much more excited about programs that would enable more parents to send their children to religiously based schools where a sense of morality, compassion, and responsibility can be clearly tied in with the religious beliefs of the family.

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