Wash. lawmaker wants to banish negative language

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SEATTLE (AP) — Decades ago, poor children became known as “disadvantaged” to soften the stigma of poverty. Then they were “at-risk.” Now, a Washington lawmaker wants to replace those euphemisms with a new one, “at hope.”

Democratic State Sen. Rosa Franklin says negative labels are hurting kids’ chances for success and she’s not a bit concerned that people will be confused by her proposed rewrite of the 54 places in state law where words like “at risk” and “disadvantaged” are used.

The bill has gotten a warm welcome among fellow lawmakers, state officials and advocacy groups.

“We really put too many negatives on our kids,” the state Senate’s president pro tem says. “We need to come up with positive terms.”

Republican Rep. Glenn Anderson disagrees, saying the potential cost of getting the bill from idea to printing — an average of $3,500 — is too much. And besides, he says, he is insulted more by the idea of the bill than what he called the political correctness it represents.

“It’s not the label, it’s the people who show up to help (children) that make the difference,” he says. “What helps is a smart, well structured program, that has funding and credibility.”

Positive labeling is more than a gimmick or political correctness, Franklin says. She believes her idea could lead to a paradigm shift in state government and to changes in classrooms across the state.

In some ways, both lawmakers are correct, says Alison Bryant Ludden, associate professor of psychology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Labels can work like self-fulfilling prophecies, Ludden says. The most relevant research on labeling concerns stereotypes concerning gender or race. For example, if a kid knows a teacher has low expectations because of his race, he’s likely to not work as hard, Ludden says.

But Ludden says labels pale in comparison to the impact of real help for kids.

“What matters is the time that we invest in them and the support that we provide for their success,” she says.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says the proposal is the first they’ve heard of changing the way poor kids are described in state law.

But there’s one group that’s glad about the possibility of getting rid of the phrase “children at-risk.” The people who publish the annual humorous List of Banished Words banned “at-risk” in 2000, calling it an overused and misused phrase.

But the idea of changing state statutes to say “at hope” instead drew a giggle from Tom Pink, a spokesman for Lake Superior State University. Pink’s office also banished “politically correct” in 1994 along with politically correct words and phrases.

“While I respect what the legislator wants to do, I think we can all agree that changing the words doesn’t change the problem,” Pink says, adding “it maybe even takes attention away from what perhaps should really be happening.”

Franklin says she’s been thinking of this idea for a while.

She saw a way to turn her notion into a bill after visiting the local Boys and Girls Club and observing how they were working with a national organization called Children At Hope to change kids’ ideas about themselves and influence the way adults think and talk about them.

The chair of the Senate Education Committee doesn’t expect Franklin’s bill will go very far this legislative session, which is scheduled to begin Monday. But she says that won’t stop the proposal from having an impact on the adults who gather in Olympia.

“At least we’ll hear the voices of the young people,” said Democratic Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, who promised the bill would get a hearing.

Wally Endicott, the northwest director of the Phoenix-based Children of Hope, says he was excited to talk to Franklin about the bill.

But he is not thrilled with the idea of using “children at hope” to refer just to the disadvantaged. His group uses the concept to talk about all kids, not just those in poverty, because all children have obstacles to their success.

If Franklin’s proposal is approved, Pink has no doubts the idea has the potential to catch on quickly.

Years from now, he says, “at hope” could even make Lake Superior’s List of Banished Words.