On three occasions, 13-year-old Megan Coulter threw her arm around the shoulder of a classmate. Just once, 12-year-old Madison Muir hugged a friend who had recently lost a parent.
For those acts, both girls were given detention by their middle schools for violating bans against public displays of affection.
“I think it has gone too far,” Lia Muir, Madison’s mother, told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira on Thursday during an interview via satellite from Montgomery, Ala.
“I honestly think I shouldn’t be punished,” said Megan, speaking with her mother, Melissa Coulter, from their home in Muscoutah, Ill. “The hugs were nothing inappropriate. There weren’t bodies pressed up against one another. It was simply a one-armed hug across the shoulders — nothing bad.”
To a growing number of school districts, it doesn’t matter. Leery of being sued under laws that make schools liable for not stopping sexual harassment between students, they’ve declared their campuses to be no-hug zones; some schools have even banned holding hands.
Megan and Madison, one from a blue state, the other from a red, are the latest students to become what they and their parents think are victims of policies that fail to allow students to engage in one of the most basic of human gestures.
“It’s part of my daily routine,” Megan explained. “I always hug my friends.”
For Madison, it seemed like the most natural way to comfort a friend who had returned to school after the loss of a parent.
“We were just talking,” she told Vieira. “I gave him a quick hug because he had to leave, and we went our separate ways. But the vice principal saw us and called us into her office and gave us detention.”
Unable to attend the preschool detention because of transportation issues, Madison, a seventh grader in Prattville, Ala., ended up missing two days of school.
“The South is known for its warm and caring people,” Lia Muir said. “It’s a natural reaction to show somebody you care. I don’t think there should be a liability issue here. It’s a natural reaction to show not even affection, just a caring move.”
Muir said she’s a hugger herself. “I hug my children all the time,” she said. “My children hug other people, and I hug my friends. My children wouldn’t believe there was something wrong with that. In no way shape or form could it be construed as inappropriate touching.”
Officials at districts that have banned hugging in all forms say they don’t want to have to make judgment calls about what’s a friendly little hug and what’s an inappropriate one. In districts that haven’t banned hugs entirely, administrators often say they want the leeway to treat the actions of students on a case-by-case basis.
Title IX, the federal statute that bans sex discrimination in schools, also protects students from sexual harassment. Hugging didn’t become an issue until 1999, when the Supreme Court ruled that a school district could be liable for damages in a case of sexual harassment by a peer that the district ignored.
“I do think they have a point,” Melissa Coulter said. “I could see where there could be a liability issue.” But, she added, “I do think there is a difference between standing beside someone and putting your arm across their shoulders and giving a quick squeeze and having full frontal contact.”
“We need to set some standards,” Muir agreed. “But this is a little extreme.”