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Education Reporter

Zero Tolerance for Hugs — and Watch Those Keychains
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Zero tolerance policies continue to land students across the nation in detentions, suspensions, and academic disgrace for behaviors once thought perfectly harmless and normal. Most recently, several school districts disciplined students for hugging. The districts cited their zero tolerance policies for sexual harassment or public displays of affection.

A 13-year-old student at Mascoutah Middle School in Illinois received two after-school detentions when her vice-principal spotted her hugging friends after school. School policy states: "Displays of affection should not occur on the campus at any time." The policy helps to prevent misunderstandings or unwelcome displays of affection, the district's superintendent told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (11-6-07).

The Autauga County, Alabama school district disciplined a junior high student for hugging a friend in November. According to the girl's mother, the student served detention for hugging a male friend, whom she said she hugged because he recently lost a parent. Autauga County prohibits "inappropriate public displays of affection, including but not limited to embracing and kissing." (WSFA12, 11-6-07)

Both hugging incidents made national news, and the girls even appeared on the Today Show to discuss the trend toward ever-stricter policies in schools.

Schools in Fort Worth, Texas and Oak Park, Illinois have also banned hugs. Kilmer Middle School in Vienna, Virginia, enforces a "No Contact" rule — students may not even give each other high-fives.

Like other zero tolerance policies, rules against hugging aim to stop discipline problems before they start by drawing the "line in the sand" well beyond behaviors that would actually cause problems. In this case, the disruptive behaviors administrators fear are sexual harassment and inappropriate displays of affection among teenage students. A 1999 Supreme Court ruling made schools liable for damages if they ignore claims of sexual harassment. Since that time, many schools have tightened their harassment policies in an effort to avoid lawsuits.

The sometimes bizarre results extend even to elementary school students. A seven-year-old in Duncanville, Texas was recently charged with sexual harassment when he told a classmate that she should wear a darker shirt so that her bra strap wouldn't show through the shirt. The boy received a two-day suspension and was transferred temporarily to an alternative school. The district later relented and changed his charge to one of "bullying" instead of "sexual harassment." (Dallas News, 10-19-07)

Of course, schools also continue to take zero tolerance policies on weapons and violence to amazing extremes. A school in Dallas recently suspended a 4-year-old who arrived at school with a keychain sporting a toy gun just a few inches long. "The message is please don't bring toy guns or knives or anything that looks like it might be dangerous to school," said a district spokesman. "School is a learning environment, you don't need to bring those types of things to school." (myfoxdfw.com, 11-06-07)

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