School Climate & Safety

Can’t Touch That

November 11, 2005 4 min read

Educators have always had to tread a fine line in laying down the law, allowing enough latitude so young minds can flourish, but not so much that they end up creating anarchy. In recent years, however, zero-tolerance policies and legal concerns have pushed some commonplace, seemingly innocuous items and practices onto principals’ lists of no-nos. From passé fashion items to childhood games, schools have learned the hard way that while rules must be made, those rules can sometimes make them look ridiculous.


The Contraband: Jelly bracelets

The Rationale: Administrators might be forgiven for apparent overzealousness in prohibiting cheap plastic jewelry on students’ arms: The drugstore-bought accessories first popularized by 1980s pop stars have now become the adolescent sex toys of the 2000s. To those participating in a sex game sometimes called Snap, each color represents a specific carnal act, and under the rules, breaking someone’s bracelet obliges him or her to perform the act on the breaker. The game has even trickled down to primary schools. After three jelly bracelet incidents in two days at Bluffton Elementary School in South Carolina—including the case of a student who begged her father to buy her a black one, symbolizing the full act—administrators knew they had to go.

The Penalty: Verboten bracelets are confiscated. As explicitly stated in the Bluffton student rule book, these items are “things to leave at home” because they “detract from learning.”

The Feedback: “It’s tough for educators to stay on top of the trends and find out what we need to ban and what we don’t need to ban,” says Bluffton principal Kathleen Corley. “This was a tricky one. We had to send a very vague note home and ask [parents] to call the school with questions.” Corley adds that there was no argument with the injunction, merely shock at the cause, particularly from the parents of 3rd graders who were involved in the game.


The Contraband: Tag

The Rationale: Head wounds and broken bones are the kind of thing you expect to see coming back from a war zone, not a game of tag on the playground. Accordingly, after a month of collateral contusions, officials at Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica, California, forbade the venerable recess activity. They also feared that a small number of students would suffer from reduced self-esteem because they had difficulty tagging other kids. “It ended up in some cases being a mild form of bullying because the same kids were always ‘it,’ ” says assistant principal Barry Yates. Making matters worse, administrators posited, the 800-student school—the district’s largest—had the smallest play area, and an almost exclusively paved one at that, turning minor falls into major injuries.

The Feedback: “The elementary school had already banned football, ... banned dodgeball, and one day in the school newsletter there was a message from the principal that tag had been banned because it hurt children’s self-esteem,” complains Tamara Silver, the mother of a 5th grader at the time of the ban. “That kind of takes everything we know about child development and throws it out the window.”

The Result: The game is now allowed, but only on a small patch of grass so that any tumbles are cushioned. The nurse’s office has reported dramatically fewer tag-related injuries since the restriction took effect, but the softer surface can’t take all the credit: Yates says the majority of students once perennially “it” have since left the school.


The Contraband: Sunscreen

The Rationale: Though it’s not the sort of thing you buy furtively on street corners, the Food and Drug Administration classifies sunscreen as a drug, as it does any product used to treat, cure, or prevent a disease—skin cancer in this case. Which was a problem for sun-sensitive students participating in field trips or outdoor PE classes at Ballwin Elementary School in Missouri, where almost all drugs—even most over-the-counter varieties—are off-limits. Kids who remembered to apply the salve before going to school were allowed to have it on, but those who forgot had to have it applied by the school nurse.

The Result: Once subject to seizure, sunscreen and protective lip balm were taken off the black list after a couple of 5th graders did some lobbying. They were concerned about exposure to ultraviolet radiation after learning in a class about the dangers of the thinning ozone layer.


The Contraband: Hugs

The Rationale: Public displays of affection are taboo at many schools. But Sky View Middle School in Bend, Oregon, earned brief and unwanted fame earlier this year after a 14-year-old student was sentenced to detention for giving her boyfriend a lingering hug between classes. The school handbook specifies that “hugging, holding hands, walking arm in arm, kissing, and other public displays of affection are not appropriate for middle school.” “Quick hello and goodbye hugs,” however, are permissible. “We wouldn’t have kids making out in the hallways,” says district spokeswoman Laurie Gould. “These are the kinds of things you wouldn’t want to see in your workplace. We ask that [students] behave professionally, ... [as they would] in an adult world when they go out to find jobs.”

The Penalty: Aside from a stern order to halt overlong embraces, students are not subject to disciplinary action unless they are serial or defiant huggers.

The Feedback: “We lived in France for about eight years—those issues aren’t really the same over there—and she happens to be 50 percent Italian, so she’s very affectionate,” explains the 14-year-old’s mother, Leslee Swanson. “It was so insane.” Swanson, who served the detention with her daughter at Sky View, gave her a big hug before driving her home.

—Ashtar Analeed Marcus and Annie O’Connell

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2005 edition of Teacher as Can’t Touch That

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