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Out-of-Control Hugging Leads to Ban at Portland's West Sylvan Middle School

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OregonLive: The hugs were out of control at West Sylvan Middle School.

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Students could not pass each other in the hallway without a hug, the principal said. The girls were hugging one another all the time. Kids were late to class because of the hugs.

Classes would end, middle schoolers would eye a classmate at the other end of the hallway, "they'd scream, run down the hallway and jump in each other's arms," Principal Allison Couch said.

It was, Couch said, a virus of hugs.

So the principal banned hugs on the school campus in late February.

The campus of nearly 600 seventh- and eighth-graders joined a growing list of schools nationwide that have halted hugs as well as other behaviors deemed detrimental to teaching and learning.

Couch said she was prompted to act in part because of a school bus incident that drew police. Though she would not describe what happened, she said no students had been harmed.

Also, it appeared to her that some students were hugging others who did not want the sign of affection.

In a March 10 memo written to other school district officials, Couch wrote, "Several parents have called because their child is being hugged, and because there is a 'culture of hugging' here they didn't feel that they could say no."

In at least one case, hugging was used as a form of mockery -- when two eighth-grade girls hugged a seventh-grade boy, she said.

"'They did that to be mean,'" Couch said the boy told her later. "'They don't like me. They did that to be mean.'"

Also, parents reported that girls were using hugging as a game to see how fast boys could become aroused, Couch said, adding, "I was seeing evidence of it."

The policy may sound unreasonable to someone outside the school, she said, but if someone filed a lawsuit because of unwanted touching, a bigger news story would have resulted.

Schools can't look the other way with disruptive behavior, said Jollee Patterson, Portland Public Schools general counsel.

"It's the responsibility of the school district, when there are concerns among students, staff or parents, to respond with appropriate rules around conduct," Patterson said, "and that's what we did with this case."

The West Sylvan PTA is backing Couch, PTA board member Lee Rumaner said.

But several parents in the school about a mile west of the Portland Children's Museum in Southwest Portland have voiced objections to the policy in blogs and e-mails, he said.

"They have a very strong passion about what they're saying," Rumaner said, "but maybe they don't have the full message she's trying to give."

In Rumaner's view, Couch is doing her job: She saw something that she perceived was interfering with students' education, and she stopped it.

"A principal's role is not to be the best friend in school," Rumaner said, adding that his seventh-grade son views the no-hug policy as ridiculous.

West Sylvan has plenty of company nationwide among schools that have banned hugging or limited the duration of hugs. Each of these towns has a school that has taken action: Oak Park, Ill.; Prattville, Ala.; Mascoutah, Ill.; Mesa, Ariz.; Vienna, Va.; Milford, Conn.; Hillsdale, N.J.; and Fort Worth, Texas. In 2005, Sky View Middle School in Bend took action, and so has a school in South Australia, across the Pacific.

In fact, a Google search of "school bans" reinforces the impression that the seemingly carefree school days of yore are not anything like today's experience.

The Mesquite Independent School District in north Texas banned skinny jeans, a Massachusetts high school banned the word "meep," a California school district banned the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary because of its "age-inappropriate" words, and several school districts have banned lunchtime games of tag and dodge ball.

Couch, who has been principal at West Sylvan for seven years and a school administer for two decades, can perhaps look forward to the day of hugging normalcy.

But in the meantime, she concluded her memo to school colleagues by saying she'd treated the hugging in schools like a computer with a virus.

"If any of you have any ideas about how to reboot so that we can come back to it appropriately, I would sure love to hear from you."

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