Encouraging civil behavior through board policy
Board members should model civil behavior at meetings and any LEA-related activity
A student in a navy sweater talks with a smiling school counselor in a brightly-lit office
Setting positive behavioral expectations has become second nature at many schools. Both students and adults benefit from established constructs of behavior, taking cues from the culture of a community. With the stress of the past year and the toll it has taken on civil discourse in many communities, now is a good time for boards to consider how civil behavior can be promoted.

Civil behavior — behavior that is polite, courteous, respectful, honest and reasonable — is instrumental to the effective operation of school districts and county offices of education. Consistently reinforcing these norms helps to create a safe and positive climate throughout the community, which, in turn, affects student well-being and learning, staff morale and community relations. Although governing boards must be careful not to impinge on the protections granted by the First Amendment for speech and expression, boards can encourage and set expectations that all persons will engage in civil behavior on local educational agency grounds, in LEA facilities, during LEA activities or events, at board meetings, and when using LEA electronic/digital systems and platforms.

The Institute of Local Government cites the importance of debate without personal attacks in its publication Promoting Civility at Public Meetings: Concepts and Practice: “Civility involves competing sets of ‘right’ values: the value of free expression versus the value of respect for fellow participants in the democratic process. …This is a fairly easy ethical dilemma to resolve insofar as it is possible to be both expressive and civil and therefore maximize both values. In fact, there is an argument that more people will be inclined to participate in a public deliberative process that focuses on the merits and demerits of an issue, as opposed to focusing on personal attacks.”

“Those who guide and teach children must themselves be on a higher plane, practicing civility and demonstrating respect. It is unreasonable to expect students to act in ways that they do not see exemplified by adults.”
Authors of The Civil Behavior of Students: A Survey of School Professionals
Experts say one of the most effective ways for board members to encourage civil behavior throughout the LEA is to model it, thereby setting the expectation and tone for others to follow. “Indeed, those who guide and teach children must themselves be on a higher plane, practicing civility and demonstrating respect. It is unreasonable to expect students to act in ways that they do not see exemplified by adults,” according to the authors of The Civil Behavior of Students: A Survey of School Professionals. Board members and staff can serve as examples of civil behavior during board meetings and when interacting with students, staff and community members by:

  • Actively listening to others
  • Paraphrasing what has been shared
  • Giving full attention to those who are speaking
  • Refraining from interrupting others
  • Welcoming and encouraging participation and input through stakeholder engagement
  • Promptly responding to concerns
  • Embracing varying and diverse viewpoints

Districts and COEs can also encourage civil behavior by educating students, staff, parents, guardians and community members to recognize, develop and demonstrate civil behavior. This can be accomplished by incorporating concepts related to civil behavior into the curriculum, providing staff development and communicating policy related to civility in the school community.

A 2018 study of classroom deliberations on public policy issues in four high schools, “Less arguing, more listening: Improving civility in classrooms,” found that students often talked past one another, used evidence selectively and valued being “right” over trying to build common ground. The researchers noted that the “current emphasis on argumentation in K-12 education, though useful, may inadvertently contribute to the development of skills that promote, rather than alleviate, incivility. If schools are to achieve their civic potential, then the teaching of argument will need to be balanced with an emphasis on listening and understanding.” Among the recommendations offered to educators is to teach students to recognize that they belong to a school community that values fairness and equity.

When considering ways to increase and promote civil behavior, boards are encouraged to review CSBA’s new sample Board Policy 1313 – Civility (issued in June 2021), as well as BP 5137 – Positive School Climate and BP 5145.9 – Hate-Motivated Behavior (updated June 2021). Boards may also want to review Board Bylaw 9005 – Governance Standards to ensure that their agreed-upon governance protocols include acting with dignity, respecting differences of perspective and communication style, and understanding the importance of demeanor when at board meetings or representing the district or COE in the community.

BP/AR 3515.2 – Disruptions provides information and strategies for addressing threatening or aggressive behavior, including circumstances under which individuals (except a student, school employee or other person required to be on school grounds for purposes of employment) may be directed to leave a school campus when their conduct reaches the level of being disruptive or threatens the physical safety of students, staff or others.