Where Students Can't Hug

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Megan Coulter, a Mascoutah, Ill., eighth-grader, served two after-school detentions last week. Her offense? Hugging two friends and therefore violating the Mascoutah Middle School's ban on public displays of affection.

Coulter's case drew dozens of newspaper headlines and landed her on NBC's Today Show. But it also illustrates a key challenge facing America's schools: When is a hug inappropriate — or "extreme," as its been dubbed by some administrators? And, more broadly, how far should schools go in policing the behavior of a generation that often takes its social cues from Paris Hilton and Britney Spears?

Student-on-student public displays of affection (PDAs) have long been problematic for school administrators and parents. Experts say anti-PDA policies have existed for nearly two decades, although it's not known how many schools and school districts have imposed such rules. In 1999, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling held schools responsible for creating environments free of harassment among students; that decision then led many lawsuit-averse administrators to ban most forms of student contact — except, of course, for high-contact sports like football and wrestling. Among the most extreme policies is in Vienna, Va., where the Kilmer Middle School has a blanket "No Contact" rule that bans even high-fives. The Fossil Hill Middle School in Fort Worth, Texas, has banned students from hugging and holding hands. Earlier this year, the Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois, banned hugs.

Other schools have a broad ban on "inappropriate displays of affection," or IPDAs. Proponents say it gives school administrators more discretion in interpreting what constitutes "inappropriate" behavior. Yet that same discretion potentially exposes administrators to accusations of unfairly targeting, say, a Latina for braiding a friend's hair, or for showing favoritism by failing to reprimand the football team's quarterback who playfully smacks a teammate's back after a win.

Practical considerations — like hallway traffic control — are behind some of these no-contact measures. For example, at Iowa City, Iowa's South East Junior High School, girls who hadn't seen each other for an entire 42-minute class often stopped to hug each other in hallways during the four-minute break between classes. The hugging clogged the 700-student school's hallways. So Deb Wretman, the principal, developed a "hands-off, or handshake" slogan to limit greetings to a handshake. (She is loath to call it a "policy," and points out that "you won't find anything in our handbook that refers to 'no hugs' or 'public displays of affection.'") While there's no penalty for "violating the slogan," Wretman says the effort has significantly reduced hallway congestion.

Under the most extreme anti-PDA policies, however, even a student who hugs a friend whose parent has just died could potentially face suspension. The lack of nuance in such policies bothers critics like Lisa Graybill, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union's Texas Chapter. "Preventing harassment and teaching kids to respect each other is important, but having yet another reason for kids' behavior to be criminalized is unnecessary," she says. "It's draconian to ban all forms of touch."

Megan Coulter's case began in earnest at a sports event a couple of weeks ago. Her parents say her southern Illinois school's vice principal asked her and a male friend to stop hugging. Then, on Nov. 2, Megan stood near a bus in the school's parking lot and put her arm around a male friend's shoulder. The vice principal, who did not return calls seeking comment, immediately issued a detention order. Minutes later, as Megan walked across the school's front lawn, a female friend gave her a hug. The vice principal issued the second detention order.

"I honestly think I shouldn't have been punished, because the hugs were nothing inappropriate," Megan, 13, said in a Today show interview, her face expressionless, her brown hair pulled back, one hand clutching her mother's. "There wasn't bodies pressed up against each other."

Now, says her mother Melissa Coulter, Megan is being shunned by friends, whose parents deem her a "bad influence." Yet the Coulters say they still support anti-PDA policies, particularly for teenagers. "I don't want them to be all over each other in the hallways," Melissa Coulter told TIME on Sunday. "We just need to clarify how they apply it. Maybe the administrators weren't given enough latitude in using their judgment." The Coulters are waiting to see if Megan's school reviews the policy for the next year. If that does not happen, they will take the issue to the school board.