- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2001

LAFAYETTE, La. ''Yes, sir" and "yes, ma'am" were the sounds the Louisiana Legislature said must echo from classrooms across the state starting in the fall of 1999.

But according to teachers, students and legislators, the "respect bill" is not getting much respect from the very people it was supposed to help.

Written by state Sen. Don Cravins, a Democrat from Arnaudville, the bill mandated that students in kindergarten through fifth grade use courtesy titles such as "ma'am" and "sir" when addressing any teacher, principal or other school employee. The bill was designed to be extended gradually to encompass all grades, adding one per year.

"I'm not naive enough to assume that's the solution to all discipline problems," Mr. Cravins now says, "nor do I believe it's a cure-all. I think it's a step in the right direction.

"It's symbolic. It's simply a gesture. I say, 'Let's try a little bit of civility.' Just as we teach reading and writing, I think we can teach manners."

The idea of enforced linguistic civility is catching on in other states. This month, the Virginia General Assembly will consider a bill to make public school students address teachers more formally. Suggested titles are "ma'am," "sir," "Mr.," "Miss" or "Mrs."

But not everyone in Louisiana is singing the rule's praises. Louis Benjamin Jr., the director of census and attendance for the Lafayette Parish School Board, faulted the bill for making schools assume parental duties.

"I don't even understand the necessity of the bill," he said. "I think it's the parents' responsibility to discipline the child."

There are "some higher priorities in the state" than changing the way schoolchildren talk, he said, adding that Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster signed the law because he "is coming from a family of people on plantations, and he comes from an antebellum mentality."

But Mr. Foster's deputy press secretary, Trey Williams, said the governor designed the bill after speaking with teachers' unions, which supported the legislation.

The governor agrees discipline is a parental responsibility, the spokesman said, but many single parents often do not have the time to instill these values in their children.

"Unfortunately, when it doesn't get passed on at home, we have the responsibility," he added.

"The governor reflected back on when he was going to school," Mr. Williams said. "All the kids were expected to show respect by saying 'yes, sir' or 'yes, ma'am.' I guess [Southerners] have the stereotype of being nice and being raised with manners, and I think that's kind of where the governor got the idea in the first place."

No child can be suspended for defying the bill, he said, and he had heard of only verbal rebukes as punishment.

The governor's office had received no complaints about the bill, but inquiries have come from residents of Kentucky, South Carolina and Orange County, Calif., on how to propose such a bill in their districts.

Joseph Savoie, a teacher at M.P. Moss Annex in Lafayette, a school for children with behavioral disorders, said the law was passed "for the governor's own amusement."

"There's no use for it," he said. The law is enforced at his school, he said, but only thorough "verbal correction."

"We enforce it by saying, 'What did you call me?' " Mr. Savoie said. "There's no disciplinary action. It's only corrective."

Even that, he added, seems a little much.

"What difference is it going to make if you call me 'yes, sir' or 'no, sir' as long as you respect me, period?" he asked. "That's not an issue of respect because you can 'yes, ma'am' and 'no, "somebody" ' and mean it in a very ugly way and that's not really going to accomplish anything."

Dale Bayard, a member of the state Board of Secondary and Elementary Education, was uncertain about the bill's effectiveness.

"I'm not sure that any bill or law can create the proper atmosphere of respect in the schools," he said.

He supported the bill because it was "apple pie and Chevrolet and everything all-American." But, he said, "a school system gets inundated with reports and all sorts of things that are more important."

"The legislation, while the intent is good and the issue is one of concern, in reality, the school system has more important things to do that are more time-consuming," he said.

Jesse Joubert, principal of Egan Elementary in Acadia, La., insists the law is unnecessary.

"We have too many laws for every Tom, Dick and Harry thing that there is," he said. "We have far more important things to worry about.

"It's a feel-good issue," the principal said. "I don't think it's changed any way that the schools do business. The reality of the situation is everyone is accountable for student behavior except the student."

Keely McGibboney, 10, an honor roll student at L.J. Alleman Middle School in Lafayette, says the law has not made a difference in the way students behave.

"Some kids don't do it now and they didn't do it before the law," she said. "I forget to do it sometimes, but I do it when I remember to do it."

Students should not be forced to obey the law, she said, because "you shouldn't be forced to say anything."

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