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Cracking Down On Cussing

November 30, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

There will be no more f-words, b-words or s-words spoken, yelled or hissed in classes at Hartford Public or Bulkeley high schools.

Not for free, anyway.

Students who dare utter words of the sort are paying dearly for their vocabulary. In a bid to rein in out-of-control language - and behavior - city police officers assigned to the schools have started doling out tickets with $103 fines. They have charged about two dozen students over the past few weeks with creating a public disturbance, an infraction.

"We're sending a message to the parents and to the teachers," said Sandy Cruz-Serrano, senior adviser to Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry. "We are trying to bring back order to the schools."

The target of the campaign, a joint effort by school officials and police, is not the casual curser. Context and usage are everything. Students who swear while defying a teacher or school officials are the ones landing tickets.

Keila Ayala, 17, a sophomore at Hartford Public, got one of those tickets when - while handcuffed for taking a swing at an officer - bellowed the f-word in the officer's face. She is surprisingly supportive of the new policy.

"I have anger management problems," Ayala said in a quiet moment, admitting the prospect of expensive tickets might help her get a grip on her mouth.

"It'll stop me from swearing," she said. "Well, it won't stop me from swearing, but I won't cuss at the teachers. The one who is going to pay is my mom. That's why I don't want to keep getting tickets because I don't want to get in trouble with her."

Parents are on the hook, too. If the youngsters don't put up the cash, the parents have to pay - or perhaps find the time to accompany their youngsters to court. Failing to respond to the tickets could lead to more serious charges.

"Our heads are spinning with that," said Sam Saylor, president of the district Parent Teacher Organization. "The kids are really indecent with their swearing and they're swearing at teachers. This is their way of curtailing it - making the parents pay."

While the idea of $103 fines bothers some parents and students, officials say it seems to be working. In the weeks since officers wrote up 15 to 20 tickets at Hartford Public and another eight or so at Bulkeley, they said a rare hush has settled into the hallways and classrooms.

With his bright red ticket book in hand, Officer Roger Pearl finds voices lowering around him like a wave as he strolls Bulkeley's hallways between classes.

Pearl also investigates complaints lodged by teachers and, he said, the students typically admit what they've done - or said.

"I don't like writing tickets," Pearl said, though he marvels at their effect. "Before, the kids were swearing all the time. It went from many incidents to almost nothing. It's quiet in the halls."

In a letter to teachers explaining the tickets, Bulkeley Principal Miriam Morales-Taylor expressed a clear note of exasperation, saying she was struck by the number of "major disciplinary offenses" that teachers wrote up for students who used foul language with the staff.

"Ticketing students for using profanity is a last-resort avenue to send a clear and strong message that foul language is unacceptable and to modify behavior," Morales-Taylor wrote.

The program, participation in which is at the discretion of school principals, is not being used at Weaver High School.

At Hartford High, freshman Glynn Hawes said tickets could be just enough for his pals to learn new ways.

"When you curse, it's a habit," Hawes said. "I have friends who are cursaholics. We don't want to pay for it - especially at Christmas-time. Parents will get involved. Kids here, they don't have jobs and the tickets are expensive."

But fellow freshman Aaron Scott Pearson II is more skeptical. Lacing his language with curses to punctuate his point, Pearson declared: "I curse all day."

And what about teachers and coaches who curse - will they get tickets, too? Pearson asked.

George Sugai, who teaches behavior management and school discipline classes at the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, is skeptical of the potential for long-term effects.

"Research says that punishing kids doesn't teach them the right way to act," he said.

Evidence of that, he said, is the way kids return to their bad behavior when they are released from detention centers. "Are they learning social skills to get along with teachers and with each other?" Sugai asked.

But Cathy Carpino, president of the teachers' union, welcomes the new civility for as long as it lasts.

"They've tried suspensions and detentions. It hasn't worked," she said.

Teachers, she said, are reporting a more positive environment. "They're able to do more teaching and less discipline. ... Anything that improves the teaching and learning environment, I support."

At Hartford Public Tuesday, sophomore Eric King was full of bravado as he and his classmates pondered the merits of tickets for cursing.

"They gave me three of those, but I'm not paying any of them," the 16-year-old declared, to the delight of his supportive classmates, who said in a chorus that they would not be deprived of their right to use the full spectrum of the English language.

Out in the hall, King modified his story - and his attitude. Turns out he hasn't actually gotten one of those tickets yet, though he said a teacher threatened to refer him to the school police officer for swearing in class.

King also conceded that he's worried enough about fines piling up that he's decided the once unthinkable:

"It'll stop me from cursing in school. I'll keep it down. It's not worth it."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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