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County students get character training

September 16, 1999|By BRUCE HAMILTON

A group of 35 community leaders, educators, activists and business representatives are starting to teach character in Washington County.

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Today is the third and final day of a training seminar at Hagerstown Community College for those involved in "Character Counts." The national program is meant to combat poor manners and bad behavior in society, principally in schools.

"We've reached the bottom and we're coming back up," said Herb Gould, a police officer from Waverly, Tenn., who is one of the group's two contracted trainers.

Once participants complete the "train the trainer" course, each acts as an advocate for the program's values.

"What is the direction of your moral compass?" asked a slogan on a bulletin board. On Wednesday, the class made makeshift paper bumper stickers. "Character Cancels Chaos" one of them read.

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The Josephson Institute of Ethics, a California nonprofit organization, started Character Counts in 1993.

The program's pillars are trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, caring and citizenship.

The Washington County Commissioners pledged $15,000 to the program.

Nancy Van Gulick, a trainer since 1994, said she's seen the program's success. She pointed to Gaithersburg, Md., which adopted the program citywide in 1996.

Students there have higher test scores now, according to Van Gulick. There are fewer incidents of violence and the kids are happier and kinder, she said.

"I think we need to do this," said Jenny Aiken, a 16-year-old North Hagerstown High School junior taking the training seminar. Aiken is Washington County Student Government president.

"It's my job to bring all the schools together in a network so we can get the students involved," she said.

Some kids are not learning values from their parents, Aiken said.

She said some people resist character education because they feel it implies they aren't who they should be. "We're not trying to do that," Aiken said. "We're just saying there are different ways of looking at it."

Many of the participants are involved in education, including an assistant superintendent, teachers association president and PTA council president. But the group also includes a bank manager, a receptionist, a cosmetologist, a social worker and others.

Lt. Margaret Kline of the Hagerstown Police Department said she took the class to help bolster character in local law enforcement.

"You've got to give respect to get respect," she said. "That's a struggle sometimes working on the street."

From 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, the class held a variety of exercises focusing on different aspects of character education. For example, Van Gulick spent part of Wednesday afternoon discussing respect.

"Society has started taking away... what we used to call civility," she said. "Excuse me sir, could you please tell me the time?" is different from "Hey, you got the time?" she said.

Respect includes valuing all people, being polite and tolerant of differences, she said. It can combat violent behavior, such as road rage. Although things like manners may seem obvious, some people simply don't know about them.

"I wish we could teach the adults who need to know," she said.

Class members grappled with how to teach the "golden rule."

Tracey Brown of Brothers United said it's hard to persuade poor people to return a $10 bill found on the street if they need it to survive.

"That's not what they (heard) growing up," she said. "They are in hardship all the time."

Another participant agreed. "How do you tell them it's wrong to take money they desperately need to feed their children?" she asked.

"That's part of what you do in the community, address their basic needs," said Timothy Berry, administrator of Brooke Grove Foundation.

"It feels good to be good," said Jaclyn Brewer, Hagerstown YMCA instructor.

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