Columbia pushes for civility

Maria Kalaitzandonakes

Photo Illustration by Asa Lory
Senior Carrina Fowler was waiting for the bus, tired after a long day of school, dragging her black converse shoes along the concrete. A sea of RBHS students walked by her until a girl Fowler had never met passed, then turned back quickly. The girl returned to the spot where Fowler sat and aske if Fowler was okay. The stranger said she returned to check because whenthe girl walked by she thought Fowler seemed sad and wanted to make sure Fowler was all right.
Fowler was fine, but that tiny instance made a huge impression on her. The girl was courteous toward Fowler, someone she had never met, simply because it was the civil thing to do.
Dr. Pier Massimo Forni, professor and co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, said that it is the little acts of civility we do each day that make for a better world.
“When someone walks by you on the opposite side of the street on a rainy day, you move your umbrella over slightly as to not hit them,” he said in a presentation at University of Missouri – Columbia Aug. 22. “You do these things because you care about the other person, even if you do not know them.”
Schools are a prime place for acts of civility and incivility to occur, as the students and faculty spend their days with the same people; often they are in a high stress environment.
Unfortunately, small acts of incivility can have huge and lasting impacts. According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year.
Teachers are often the prime witnesses of such instances. Chemistry teacher Gregory Kirchhofer said watching students figure out how to relate to and befriend their peers is one of his favorite parts of his job. Last year he had a foreign exchange student from Korea in his class, and she spoke very little English. He watched, delighted, as one student took it upon herself to learn a few Korean words, make her a braided key chain and help her survive the periodic table.
She “made sure that the new student felt safe and included when she dropped into a class with little English,” Kirchhofer said. “It seems like just little kindness, but imagine the difference that made in the new student’s life. And what an easy choice it would have been for her not to put herself out there with some new kid who didn’t even speak the language.”
Forni has developed a basic standard at which he believes all humans should abide to in his book, “Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct.”  These qualities become more important, he said, in the work place and in schools. Forni said little by little rudeness and harassing can turn into violence and death.
According to the United States Department of Labor, nearly two million workers report having been victims of workplace violence each year. Forni believes most of these cases have their roots in small acts of incivility.
Fowler said it is even more important to be civil in high school than in the workplace because  “you never know how much something you do or say could hurt their feelings. [And] with emotions on high, it’s possible to blow things out of proportion and do things we may regret out of distress.”
Forni started teaching the importance of civility at Johns Hopkins University and is now helping people at universities and workplaces worldwide push for civility. The University of Missouri – Columbia is one of its newest members, having just begun a new program called Show Me Respect.
“The unofficial kick off was Dr. Forni speaking at Mizzou, but our official kick off is Mizzou’s Diversity Summit, a program about civility in a diverse world,”  Noel English, director of the University of Missouri — Columbia Equity office said. “The Show Me Respect program is about giving ourselves permission to talk about rudeness and our need for civility in the open. … Asking others and ourselves to have respect for the people surrounding them.”
Schools around the world could benefit from civility projects, Forni said. The civility project’s goals are not only establishing a code of ethics and a promise to fellow students and teachers to be civil, but also to push those involved to volunteer in their communities in acts of good will. This promotes an environment of mutual respect and understanding.
“The Equity office deals with lots of small issues, but it also deals with sexual harassment cases, bullying and the new world of cyber bullying,” English said. “And those are not little things.”
Fowler said many of her friends have struggled with depression at some point in their high school careers. Much of their sadness had its roots in seemingly insignificant acts of exclusion and name calling, Fowler said. These moments of bullying and these instances of feeling odd were constant stressors for Fowler’s friends.
“If we teach civility to our students in our classes,” Forni said, “they will be better citizens when they leave.”
By Maria Kalaitzandonakes
This is part of our special report focusing on Suicide Prevention Week.