School Climate & Safety

Everyone Is Just Really Confused About Hugging in Schools

By Ross Brenneman — March 22, 2013 2 min read
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Sometimes we need to bubblewrap children for their own protection. Maybe it’s easier to keep them safe that way. When their security is at stake, it’s easy to believe that their protectors would do anything to keep students from harm.

You may have heard that earlier this March, St. Mary’s County, Md., public elementary schools banned parents from hugging any child other than their own. The rule has gotten some attention from various media outlets because, well, hugging is great. Hugging is sunshine you spread with your arms. Are we now supposed to say “Hugs not drugs, only also, no hugs”?

It’s so warm and comforting, right?

Actually, though, St. Mary’s County still likes its hugging; there is no ban. The district convened a study group to focus on ways that schools could improve procedures regarding school visitation, with the first meeting taking place in September 2012. That group presented its list of best practices at a March 13 board meeting. The report tackled everything from recess policy to procedures for bringing in homemade snacks. At some point, however, the presentation’s list of practices were confused with outright rule changes, and Internet backlash ensued.

“We want to ensure that our parents and volunteers are held to the same high standard as our staff by communicating clear guidance and expectations for working and volunteering with children,” wrote superintendent Michael J. Martirano in a letter posted to the district’s website, in an effort to correct misunderstandings.

The board now plans on further developing the practices for use in secondary schools.

So hugging is not the new school climate threat. But there’s reason enough to understand the concern. Lapses in school security can quickly lead to tragedy, and if schools don’t innately distrust parents, there are many reasons to distrust people in general. More than one person has imitated a parent to sign another person’s child out of school, including a brutal Philadelphia occurrence this past January. And this week alone, at least two media outlets have reported attempted abductions of students from school, one in Sussex, England, and the other in Eddyville, Iowa. At some point, schools might not want to spend a valuable resource—time—figuring out who belongs on a school campus and who doesn’t.

The threat of child abduction doesn’t equate to the threat of hugging, necessarily, but for worried administrators, does a difference really matter? What looks like a simple hug from a stranger could end in kidnapping or assault, and the news is riddled with articles about improper relations between adults and schoolchildren. Yesterday, the Ohio Department of Education released a report showing that accusations of teacher misconduct have tripled since 2007. Education is built on the foundation that parents can trust schools with their kids, but there are daily reminders that adults are not angels. Even when it might be innocent, sometimes parents don’t want anyone to touch their child.

When you’re a school administrator, perhaps, at some point, it stops making a difference that most hugging is not dangerous. That’s why a New Jersey middle school principal banned hugging last March on the grounds that it had led to occasionally suggestive embracing.

There’s no war on hugging, but maybe more bans are coming. Sometimes it’s easier to just say “No touching.”

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.

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