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Va. School's No-Contact Rule Is a Touchy Subject

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007

Fairfax County middle school student Hal Beaulieu hopped up from his lunch table one day a few months ago, sat next to his girlfriend and slipped his arm around her shoulder. That landed him a trip to the school office.

Among his crimes: hugging.

All touching -- not only fighting or inappropriate touching -- is against the rules at Kilmer Middle School in Vienna. Hand-holding, handshakes and high-fives? Banned. The rule has been conveyed to students this way: "NO PHYSICAL CONTACT!!!!!"

School officials say the rule helps keep crowded hallways and lunchrooms safe and orderly, and ensures that all students are comfortable. But Hal, 13, and his parents think the school's hands-off approach goes too far, and they are lobbying for a change.

"I think hugging is a good thing," said Hal, a seventh-grader, a few days before the end of the school year. "I put my arm around her. It was like for 15 seconds. I didn't think it would be a big deal."

A Fairfax schools spokesman said there is no countywide ban like the one at Kilmer, but many middle schools and some elementary schools have similar "keep your hands to yourself" rules. Officials in Arlington, Loudoun and Prince George's counties said schools in those systems prohibit inappropriate touching and disruptive behavior but don't forbid all contact.

Deborah Hernandez, Kilmer's principal, said the rule makes sense in a school that was built for 850 students but houses 1,100. She said that students should have their personal space protected and that many lack the maturity to understand what is acceptable or welcome.

"You get into shades of gray," Hernandez said. "The kids say, 'If he can high-five, then I can do this.' "

She has seen a poke escalate into a fight and a handshake that is a gang sign. Some students -- and these are friends -- play "bloody knuckles," which involves slamming their knuckles together as hard as they can. Counselors have heard from girls who are uncomfortable hugging boys but embarrassed to tell anyone. And in a culturally diverse school, officials say, families might have different views of what is appropriate.

It isn't as if hug police patrol the Kilmer hallways, Hernandez said. Usually an askance look from a teacher or a reminder to move along is enough to stop girls who are holding hands and giggling in a huddle or a boy who pats a buddy on the back. Students won't get busted if they high-five in class after answering a difficult math problem.

Typically, she said, only repeat offenders or those breaking other rules are reprimanded. "You have to have an absolute rule with students, and wiggle room and good judgment on behalf of the staff," Hernandez said.

Hal's parents, Donna and Henri, say that they think Kilmer is a good school and that their son is thriving there. He earns A's and B's and, before this incident, hadn't gotten in any trouble. Still, they say they encourage hugging at home and have taught him to shake hands when he meets someone. They agree that teenagers need to have clear limits but don't want their son to get the message that physical contact is bad.

"How do kids learn what's right and what's wrong?" Henri Beaulieu asked. "They are all smart kids, and they can draw lines. If they cross them, they can get in trouble. But I don't think it would happen too often." Beaulieu has written a letter to the county School Board asking it to review the rule.

Hal's troubles began one day in March when he got up from his assigned cafeteria table and went to a nearby table where his then-girlfriend was sitting. He admits he broke one rule -- getting up from his assigned table without permission -- and he accepts a reprimand for that. "The table thing, I'm guilty," he said.

A school security officer spotted the hug and sent Hal to the office, where he was cited for two infractions. He was warned that a third misstep could lead to in-school suspension or detention.

School officials said that the girl didn't complain and that they have no reason to believe the hug was unwelcome.

Hal said that he and his classmates understand when and how it is appropriate to hug or pat someone on the back in school and that most teenagers respect boundaries set by their peers. Today, his seventh-grade year ends as school lets out for the summer. Next fall, he hopes Kilmer officials reconsider the rule.

"I think you should be able to shake hands, high-five and maybe a quick hug," he said. "Making out goes too far."


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