- The Washington Times - Monday, December 6, 1999

Louisiana teachers say they can respect a new state law that requires students to be more polite to adults at schools. But they are doing little to enforce it other than to encourage proper manners something as Southerners, many say they have done all along.

“This was mostly feel-good legislation,” said Mona Waldrop, a teacher and field representative for the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, who surveyed a cross section of educators from her 56,000-student school system on their use of the new respect legislation.

“It really wasn’t enforced,” said Miss Waldrop of the law that went into effect at the start of school this year.

In June, Louisiana drew cheers and jeers from across the nation after it became the first state to require elementary school children to speak respectfully to school personnel.

The law was dubbed the Aretha Franklin bill because of the singer’s famous ‘60s hit, “Respect” by Gov. Mike Foster, a Republican and staunch values-education proponent.

It requires children in kindergarten through fifth grade to respond with a polite “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am,” or “yes sir” or “no sir” when speaking to teachers, principals and other school employees.

Supporters of the law said it would help restore values and discipline sorely needed in today’s schools. A few opponents argued that respect is something best taught at home and that legislating students’ speech could violate their First Amendment rights. The bill passed easily through both houses of the legislature in June.

Months after the hoopla, the law that put Louisiana in the media spotlight now sparks little attention. Even the governor’s press secretary, Marsanne Golsby, confessed last week that she hadn’t had one press call since the summer, when the bill became law.

Teachers who must enforce it said they often correct children who misspeak, but they have heard of no students who were punished for violating the new mandate on decorum. The law left it up to individual school boards to decide what sanctions were fitting.

Mary Justice, principal of Bourg Elementary in Bourg, La., about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans, said teachers at first thought the new law “was kind of like a joke because how can you possibly punish” bad manners.

“We thought: Are you going to send a child home because of that? Are you actually going to let him miss his education because of that?’ ”

“We taught respect long before it had to become a bill,” she adds.

In Calcasieu Parish, the respect law has failed to make significant impact, observes Jean Johnson, a teacher for 25 years and president of the 6,000-member Calcasieu Federation of Teachers.

Mrs. Johnson says manners remain an important part of Southern culture, and most teachers in her district the state’s fifth largest have always expected their students to use “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” to adults.

“That’s the way people talk.”

Sandra Lollie, an alternative school teacher from Monroe, said elementary students in her rural 19-school district, are for the most part following the respect law, but it has done little to affect children’s behavior.

“Here in the South, that’s kind of a tradition, proper etiquette and good manners,” she said. “I don’t think the law has been a big thing to help them enforce it. It’s like an unspoken etiquette anyway.

“Usually, if the student says yeah’ or nah,’ which happens periodically, they are just stopped and the teacher says Excuse me?’ And the student replies yes sir’ or no sir,’ ” she said.

Despite the tepid reaction among Louisiana teachers, the state’s respect law has sparked interest in at least one other state.

Students in Kentucky public schools, under a bill filed by State Rep. Jodie Haydon, a Democrat from Bardstown, would be required to use respectful terms such as “yes ma’am” or “no sir” when addressing teachers or other school employees.

Kentucky legislators will take up the “good manners” bill when the legislature convenes early next month. The proposed legislation calls on teachers to correct impolite students, much in the same manner that they correct bad grammar. Punishment for bad manners would be decided by local school boards.

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