Policing displays of affection at school

An embrace between two Oregon middle-schoolers leads to detention - and national debate.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When Leslee Swanson got word that her eighth-grade daughter was to serve detention, she felt a wave of panic. When she heard the punishment was over a hug, the panic turned to bewilderment - and ire at the school. She quickly backed her daughter, Cazz Altomare, who has been accused of engaging in a "lingering hug" with her boyfriend. As the mother, she says she's to blame for raising her child to be "huggy."

Welcome to the Great PDA debate. Regulating "public displays of affection" has been a focus of schools for time immemorial, lest hallways turn into a daily episode of the "O.C."

But the flap in tiny Bend, Ore., is adding a new - and specific - dimension to the enduring debate: When, exactly, is a hug a hug and when is it something more ominous? To many, of course, the whole episode is a tempest in a teen pot - an overblown morality tale. But like many issues these days, it is suddenly resonating with parents and others around the country - and even around the world.

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Rightly or wrongly, it's sparking a broader look at whether public schools have gone too far in policing student behavior. The mother accuses the district of eating away at basic human rights. The district argues that its role is to provide a comfortable environment in which the middle-schoolers, grades 6 through 8, can learn without being disrupted by inappropriate behaviors - such as a lingering hug.

Sudden attention

Either way, all the attention has caught Bend off guard. One reason is that no explicit ban on "lingering hugging" exists. Like many schools across the country, the Bend-La Pine school district refers to public displays of affection generally in its student guidelines, including the instructions: "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 are OK." (A hugging ban does exist at the La Pine middle school just south of Bend, where no complaints have been filed.)

"School districts have been forced to be vigilant about potential accusations of peer-on-peer harassment because of lawsuits," says Melinda Anderson of the National Education Association, a teachers union. "What might appear to be an innocent hug could be interpreted later to be something more serious."

But as schools are careful to protect themselves from lawsuits, the question is how precautionary measures affect students. "Students are for the most part much more responsible than we give them credit for," says Rob Horner, an education specialist at the University of Oregon in Eugene. "If as adults our role is to identify only what they're doing wrong, then we are not doing as much as we can."

It's essential, Dr. Horner adds, to remember that kids in the US come from a wide variety of backgrounds, with very different ideas about "appropriate" behavior. Laurie Gould, spokeswoman for the Bend-La Pine school district, says most Bend natives are unperturbed by the rule. The accusing family, she points out, is "not from around here."

It's true: Cazz has lived in Paris, Prague, and Los Angeles. Her mother, a musician, agrees that the hug scuffle is partly cultural.

But superintendent Douglas Nelson, who enforces school rules for thousands of students, doesn't have time to accommodate every cultural scruple. Teachers make value judgments every day, he says, and so long as they are reasonable, they must be respected. "We're not talking about a hug," says Dr. Nelson, looking weary after 12 hours of TV interviews. "We're talking about not following the directions of the school authority."

He's not alone in his insistence on a clearly delineated "right" and "wrong." So long as rules are clear, the student who violates them must be held accountable, says Arthur Coleman, a partner at Holland & Knight in Washington and a former lawyer in the US Department of Education.

The problem is, schools simply can't make rules for every permutation of behavior. "Broadly speaking, schools have the right and the obligation to set rules regarding conduct of students," Mr. Coleman says. "Circumstances [will] arise that are not spelled out."

In defense of hugging

But Swanson says that focusing on the violation skirts the bigger issue. "I expect them to have guidelines in school, and I expect my daughter to follow reasonable guidelines," she says. "And I told [Cazz] that if she wants to stay at the school and have a harmonious atmosphere in her school life, she's got to follow the rules."

But she refuses to tell her daughter that hugging her boyfriend is a punishable offense. "When I think about all the terrible things that children could be doing ... to put hugging in that same category is absolutely absurd to me.... You've got this collection of things you're not supposed to do - they're wrong, bad - and hugging is one of them? I don't think so."

But hugs can be tricky things, as Cazz admits. "Sometimes they mean 'Hello' or 'I'm sorry' or 'I love you,' " she says.

And sometimes they collide with others' sense of decorum - just as school rules collide with her own. "I don't know," she says. "I just think the rule is dumb."

Her mother asks to see the hug, to get a sense of its overtones and duration. Cazz approaches her slowly, deliberately, and encircles her waist with both arms. She rests her chin on her mother's shoulder. "That's it?" Swanson asks. Cazz is silent. Her eyes are closed, and the hug lasts a full five seconds.

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