Fourteen-year-old Ella Fishbough learned the hard way that the command to “love thy neighbor” stops at the doorsteps of the school house. She became an “offender” of zero-contact rules by giving a classmate a consoling hug to a classmate who had a bad day.
The eighth grader at Jackson Heights Middle School in Oviedo, Fla., was given detention because she broke her school’s ban on “inappropriate touching” which includes hugs.
The Seminole County School District has a strict code of conduct, but leaves discretion up to the principal. The district’s code of conduct prohibits “inappropriate or obscene acts” including “unwelcome or inappropriate touching, or any other physical act that is considered to be offensive, socially unacceptable or not suitable for an educational setting.”
Detention was doled out because this was Fishbough’s second infraction. She was given a warning the previous month when the same boy put his hand on her head.
News 6 Orlando has more from her perspective:
"I just like hugged them. It was literally for a second," said Ella, an eighth-grade student.
"I do not feel that this 'no hugging, holding hands, arm-linking' would be considered inappropriate touching," said Kathy Fishbough, Ella's mother.
"I do think about inappropriate touching and boys and girls of this age having feelings for one another, but that's not what we're dealing with here. And if administration can't tell the difference between a friendly, 'How are you doing' hug and an inappropriate hug, then I think we have another big problem," said Fishbough.
The family makes an interesting point. There’s a difference between sexual behavior and general friendly behavior, but the school makes no such distinctions:
This family of huggers fears one principal may be taking the district's broad policy too far.
"I did ask the principal, if something happened in our family, and she needed to console her cousin or her cousin wanted to console her, would she get in trouble? She said, 'Yes, ma'am. She would get a PDA," said Fishbough.
All of these are public displays of affection (PDAs) and school officials are trying to curb innocent behavior that can lead to something more, but is there a point when banning benign physical touch goes overboard?
The Washington Post reports:
Similar incidents at schools across the country have drawn attention to the seeming rigidity of policies on public displays of affection. Almost exactly four years ago, two other Florida middle-school students, this time in Palm Bay, were given in-school suspensions for sharing a hug even though their principal said he believed their behavior was innocent.
Megan Coulter, an Illinois eighth-grader, gained a considerable following after the Associated Press reported in 2007 that she was labeled a “second offender” by her middle school for gently hugging two different people. Coulter was punished with two days in detention.
Many of these policies have been in place for at least the last decade, and some were approved by parent-teacher committees. But parents like the Fishboughs believe that the rules have been taken too far, to the point that Ella is now afraid to even touch anybody, Click Orlando reports.
Once again, we are left to scratch our heads on these policies. The problem with trying to control behaviors such as potential inappropriate touching by raging hormone-filled teens through broad, sweeping bans leads to absurd incidents that catch healthy and innocent behavior in a dragnet.
How often have we reported on cases of kids and teens who are dragged into the juvenile justice system for innocent play because of sweeping rules that are more zero-common sense than zero-tolerance?
Should kids regard kindness to a schoolmate in need as something that might land them in trouble? That's where policies of this sort take us.