Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Hug-Free Zone Is Also the Thinking-Free Zone

Here we go again--yet another story of school administrators making Mt. Everest out of the tiniest of molehills.

Last year, I discussed the case of school administrators at a district in Waco that had suspended a pre-kindergarten student for hugging a teacher's aide, and a few weeks ago, I mentioned in passing an Illinois middle school that had outlawed hugs completely. Well, guess what, boys and girls? This ridiculous line of thinking has now invaded the Metroplex:
A 7-year-old boy in Duncanville gets in trouble for telling a classmate to wear a darker shirt because he can see her bra strap. The school suspends him and labels the incident as sexual harassment.

In Keller ISD, school officials catch an eighth-grade girl holding hands with a friend and tell her to stop.

From bans on hugging to labeling comments as sexual harassment, schools are cracking down on anything that smacks of sex. Critics say teachers and administrators have become too fearful of lawsuits and have stopped letting kids be kids.
Yep, you can count me among those critics.

And I understand that Those in Charge can't just let these things go addressed, and they may well feel that the law has them in between a rock and a hard place, but all I'm asking is that they'll think a little bit before making these decisions:
Recent precedent-setting lawsuits have made it clear that school officials must respond to complaints of student-on-student sexual harassment or face possible court action.

"I think it's the kind of world we live in today, but you would hope that common sense would prevail," said Jeff Horner, a Houston attorney who represents school districts.

[...]Archie McAfee, executive director of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, said school principals and administrators are caught in the middle.

If a school district punishes a student for what parents say is a minor offense, it faces scrutiny. But if a district doesn't take a complaint seriously, it could be held responsible.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that school districts can be held liable for ignoring complaints of student-on-student harassment or failing to protect students.
But experts have also noted that it's possible to respond to this problem in a well-thought-out manner:
Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at the Wellesley Centers for Women, urges school districts not to rush to judgment in sexual harassment cases.

"Part of it is they have a rather loose, flexible concept of what's sexual harassment," she said. "I applaud their attention to the problem, but they need to do something proactively, not in response to."

To help, Ms. Stein has developed a curriculum for teachers that deals with harassment as well as bullying.

"I believe you can do this in the classroom in a nonpanicked, age-appropriate way," she said. "There are ways to make this a fun and interesting subject in schools."
As I've said before, the real problem lies with the districts having a one-size-fits-all approach to problems that are rarely "one size." Where I think things go astray is when adminstrators try to hide behind rules rather than judging each case on its merits--yes, even if it means making a decision that might make someone angry. If you don't have the courage to make such a decision, you don't belong in the business. Period. (And yes, I have to plug my solution to the problem of out-of-touch administrators somewhere in this post; you knew I would.)

I believe that something I said a few weeks ago bears repeating:
I would think that anyone with half a brain would know that it's virtually impossible, even in our Britney-ized society, for a 4-year-old to be a sexual being. (Show me the study that proves this beyond a reasonable doubt and I'll shut up....*crickets*...yeah, that's what I thought.) Did the student hug the teacher inappropriately? If it made the teacher uncomfortable, the answer would have to be yes. But chances are, he was only replicating something he had done with Mommy at home. The teacher is not Mommy (though she should take it as a compliment if he felt that comfortable around her), so the lesson that should be taught here is, perhaps, that hugging people that way is only reserved for Mommy and not for other people; the lesson should not be that the kid did something so bad that he needs to be isolated from the rest of the school for a day or two. The kid's only going to end up confused, and the adults in charge have overreacted in a big way.

If an adult thinks that the innocent hug of a four-year-old, no matter much it may have hit the wrong target, was done with anything at all sexual in mind, the bigger problem lies with that adult, not with the kid.
Read the whole thing. I was quite relieved to read where a principal said that zero-tolerance policies can go too far and that good judgement needed to go hand-in-hand with enforcement in these cases. It's also good to know that state law gives more flexibility when punishment does have to be meted out (considering the previous history of the student, among other things).

And I'd love to hear others chime in on this, espeically my fellow educators (feel free to post anonymously if you feel the need). Does an elementary-school hug ever constitute sexual harassment? Is a brief episode of hand-holding an unacceptable public display of affection? And were the punishments discussed above excessive in your opinion? Fire away in the comments.

Here's another punishment that doesn't fit the crime: The parents of a six-year old girl who doodled on the sidewalk in New York City were threatened with a $300 graffiti fine by the city.

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