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Issue Date: July 2007 Issue


Civility War

It’s been two years since good manners became a matter of public debate and gave way to the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Civility Project. But is the East Side’s all-out assault on rude behavior making a difference?
Edited by Jim Vickers, Illustration by Tyson Smith, Written by Kathy Ewing
Blue and white “We Support Civility” posters greet every visitor to the Cleveland Heights Recreation Center. It’s the same story at City Hall, where you can buy a $5 T-shirt to publicly declare your support for common courtesy.

The message is trumpeted in windows of businesses along Coventry and Lee roads, and nearly every mailing from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District talks about it.

The roots of this ubiquitous good-manners campaign, known as The Civility Project, stretch back to October 2004, after a fight along Lee Road involving eight Heights High School students moved inside a drugstore. A Sun News headline at the time declared “Riot breaks out at CVS.”

Al Slawson, a former Shaker Heights schoolteacher, inadvertently fueled the public debate about good manners the following summer, when a letter to his department head was reprinted in the local weekly newspaper. In it, he wrote that the uncivil attitudes of some of his students and parents was one of the reasons he was 
retiring.

Around that time, then-Cleveland Heights resident and attorney Diane Millett and her friend Ron Schmidt, the owner of a Solon-based business, were lamenting the lack of civility in their respective jobs.

Millett, who teaches antiharassment workshops, thought her lessons approached the problem too negatively. “I was tired of trying to tell people what not to do — as in do not harass other people, do not tell dirty jokes in the workplace,” she says. Schmidt had noticed problems among his employees caused by a simple lack of respect for one another.

Those experiences, coupled with the continued public debate over student conduct, led Schmidt and Millett to ask the Rev. John Lentz, senior pastor at Forest Hill Church, to initiate a public dialogue on civil behavior.

“Everybody was pointing fingers at faculty, parents, kids, administrators,” Lentz recalls. “It became a negative circle.”

So, local leaders met in December 2005 to discuss a positive response. That meeting led to a communitywide Year of Civility marked by visiting speakers, a Web site (www.heightscivility.org) and another slogan, “Civility — The Heart of a Caring Community.”

Since then, Cleveland Heights’ city government and the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School System have kept the effort alive. City Council member Nancy Dietrich displays civility posters in government buildings and the school’s sports participants wear Civility Project T-shirts.

“There’s a huge reminder to every kid and every parent about how to behave,” says Schmidt, who incorporates the topic into his employee training program.

Slawson is pitching in at Wiley Middle School in University Heights. Armed with a county grant, he invites local leaders into the classroom to discuss civil behavior and has designated 60 eighth-graders as civility ambassadors. Likewise, Renee Cavor, principal at Monticello Middle School, has empowered student council members to admonish rude and bullying peers, and all kids are encouraged to open doors for others, help carry bags and practice polite listening.

“Before we started, many of the students didn’t know what civility means,” Slawson says. “Now they do.”

The Tremont Civility Project — an effort to help the diverse residents of the near West Side Cleveland neighborhood understand and be good neighbors to one another — has already looked to the Heights Civility Project for advice.

And though organizers of the East Side project admit progress is hard to measure, it is interesting that school expulsions have dropped nearly 50 percent in the last 18 months — down from 71 in 2005 to 38 in 2006 — a period that corresponds with the timing of the civility campaign.
School officials say that statistic has more to do with its small-schools concept than anything else. But, Schmidt says, the focus on common courtesy has had a positive effect.

“Civility’s now at the forefront in our community,” he says. “It’s part of the lexicon. Certain behaviors are just unacceptable.”

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