Four middle-school students taunt a 68-year-old bus monitor until she breaks down in tears. Several dozen high school seniors trash their campus in the name of graduation fun. A motorist beats up the driver in the car behind him for honking his horn.

You don't have to search these days to find human beings behaving poorly.

That's why Joe Ovick plans to welcome students back to school next month with a high-sounding initiative that sets down-to-earth goals. "Choosing Civility" will be a reminder to treat other people with respect.

This is Ovick's 43rd year as an educator -- his 16th as superintendent of Contra Costa County schools -- but it's the first time he's directed his focus anywhere other than on academic issues. He thinks children are learning some wrongheaded lessons from what's going on around them.

Conservatives and liberals make sport of bashing each other. Political commentators scream to be heard. We have rage on the roads, bullies in schools and only a vague recollection of common courtesy.

"I think this all kind of snuck up on us," Ovick said. "I think the recession, to some degree, has made people bitter. There's a lot of uncertainty about the future. This behavior has happened without people realizing it, and I want to bring it to their attention -- like slamming the brakes on a runaway truck."

His bible is "Choose Civility," a book by P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian literature and civility at Johns Hopkins University. It lays down 25 rules, which include: listen; acknowledge others; speak kindly; accept and give praise; respect other peoples' time; don't shift responsibility and blame.


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Ovick credits Stanislaus County Superintendent Tom Changnon for bringing attention to this topic. Changnon launched a similar program nearly two years ago after budget cuts caused acrimony at school board meetings he attended.

Communications coordinator Judy Leitz explained: "It was the things he was seeing -- how people were treating each other with children in the audience. He was appalled at the lack of civility. That was the trigger. He said, 'We've got to do something.'"

Changnon appeared before every city council in the county. He spoke to teachers, parents, businesses, even juvenile hall detainees. Ninety-three presentations and 233 business partners later, the county has begun to see promising results.

"One of our school districts has seen expulsion and disciplinary measures go way down," Leitz said.

Ovick has similar hopes for Contra Costa. He asked the county's teacher of the year winners to rank the top 10 rules of civility, each of which will be emphasized in a different month of the school year. He secured resolutions on civility from the Contra Costa Council, the county board of supervisors and nine city councils. (Richmond is not among them. If you've attended a Richmond council meeting, you don't need to ask why.)

Every school will be asked to participate, whether that means posters, skits, classroom projects or something less structured. Civility can be illustrated in the smallest of gestures -- and its absence in a lack of them. The superintendent knows that only too well.

Having recently injured his leg, he was hobbling toward an entranceway the other day, a cane in one hand and a briefcase in the other, when the person in front of him whisked through the door and let it slam shut.

Maybe this thing should begin with adults.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.