Hugs are OK if they are one-armed or last less than two seconds at Mesa’s Shepherd Junior High School.
A new crackdown on public displays of affection was clarified by principal Eileen Cahoon on Friday after students protested her ban on hugging in the hallways.
After school, about 100 kids gathered, chanting, “We want hugs.” Camera crews and reporters descended on the scene. The police were called in order to contain the students to the sidewalks.
“It reminds me of the 1960s,” parent Christianne Martin said earlier in the day. Her son, seventh-grader Alek Apps, planned to wear a T-shirt he decorated with the slogan: “More hugs, less war.”
Cahoon said a policy against public displays of affection has been in place for years at the school, which serves grades seven through nine. Most students at the school are 12 to 15 years old.
The principal said the crackdown initiated this week prohibited most physical contact other than shaking hands and “standing very close to each other.” Put simply, she said: “PDA’s are not allowed on campus.”
Cahoon said the punishment for public displays of affection can range from a verbal warning to suspension.
The policy became an issue after a recent annual student survey. Cahoon said about one-fourth of Shepherd students said they thought that hugging and kissing in the hallways was a major problem.
“When students are saying that PDA’s are bothering them, as a principal, I need to step in and do something,” she said.
So Cahoon told the students earlier this week that hugging and other public displays of affection would no longer be tolerated. This included casual hugs between friends of the same gender.
Students were allowed to shake hands, Cahoon said, and it would probably be OK for athletes at sporting events to congratulate each other with a hug.
But hugging in the hallways was strictly forbidden.
Students caught hugging in the last two days have been sent to the principal’s office for a chat.
Allie Oberfield, a seventh grader, said that she was sent to the principal for a “friendly hug” that was not more than two seconds. But because she had never been sent to the principal before, she was let off with a warning.
Other students weren’t so lucky.
Dalton Lucht said he was given three days in the Alternative Learning Center for hugging. The ALC is similar to in-school suspension. However, Lucht admitted that he was rude when he was talking to the principal.
One Shepherd parent said some students responded to the crackdown by sharing “air hugs” and “affectionate handshakes” between classes.
After meeting with students Friday, Cahoon modified the policy to allow one-armed hugs and hugs less than two seconds long.
Students said that the new policy, which will take effect Monday, is acceptable, though concerns arose about who would be timing the hugs and whether students can comfort a friend who is crying.
Kathy Bareiss, spokeswoman for the Mesa Unified School District, said that the school will use “good sense” in handling these situations.
“These policies will be enforced strictly for a little while, until the problem is under control,” Bareiss said. After that, the decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.
“We’re talking about kids taking it to the limits and breaking the rules,” Bareiss said.
Student Helaina Oglesbee said that she thinks the new policy will only create more problems.
“I think that there are people who, if that’s the rules, they want to break the rules,” Oglesbee said.
Cahoon said she is currently working with students, teachers, parents and counselors to find a middle ground. The group is working to define exactly what constitutes a “PDA.”
“Of the 20 students I have talked to, all but two have been very understanding,” Cahoon said Thursday.
She said one of those two has had disciplinary problems in the past. And the other dissenter told her, “If I don’t hug and kiss my boyfriend in the hallways, he’ll hug and kiss someone else.”
Cahoon said some of the more egregious offenses she has seen on campus include group hugs at dances and a game called “bear-hugging.”
“Sometimes four or five boys will ‘bear-hug,’ and they wind up on the floor,” Cahoon said. “And at dances, students get in group hugs and they turn into ‘mosh pits.’”
The school district’s governing board has no plans to get involved in the issue at this point, said board member Mike Hughes. He said the policy does not take away students’ freedom of expression.
But Alessandra Meetze, director of the Arizona ACLU, said that issues like this one border on a breach of first amendment rights.
“More often than not these policies are enforced and discriminate against gay and lesbian students,” Meetze said.
Andrew DePoy, whose daughter Amanda is in eighth grade at Shepherd, said that he thinks the situation has gotten out of hand.
“I believe in building society. And in human contact. And in emotion and feelings and sharing with one another,” he said. “I think a few students that are being a little too touchy-feely are ruining it for everyone.”