Most wouldn’t disagree with school rules that prohibit students from locking lips between classes. But what about handholding? An arm around a shoulder? A hug for a friend?
In recent years, the Dearborn Public Schools district has moved in the direction of much of the country in prohibiting public displays of affection amongst students.
But the sea change hasn't been without controversy.
In 2007, an Illinois eighth grader made national headlines when she got two detentions for hugging her friends. An article that same year in Time examing PDAs in schools showed that policies vary widely among districts nationally–from very relaxed policies, to ones prohibiting even high-fives.
According to district spokesman David Mustonen, DPS hasn’t had any lawsuits or parent complaints stemming from inappropriate contact between students.
“In my time here, it’s never been an issue,” he said.
But the district lacks a comprehensive policy on the issue, leaving interpretation up to Dearborn’s some 30 individual schools. The Student Code of Conduct states that: “Decency is expected at all times: A student’s printed material, oral language, or physical acts or displays are unacceptable if obscene.”
PDA is considered in violation of the Code of Conduct if students “engage in inappropriate displays of affection.”
“It’s pretty vague and left open,” Mustonen said. “It will look different in the elementary, middle, and high school.”
PBIS Tightens Rules
But with the beginning of the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support program, restrictions are getting stricter as to what “appropriate” means—especially at the middle school level.
Woodworth, McCollough-Unis, Stout, O.L. Smith, Lowrey and Bryant schools all implemented the program within the past three school years, along with DuVall, Geer Park, Henry Ford, Haigh, Howard, Howe, Lindbergh, McDonald, Miller, Nowlin, River Oaks, Snow and Whitmore-Bolles elementary schools, plus the Fordson High ninth grade academy.
Dearborn’s high schools will all begin using the program within the next school year.
PBIS focuses on rewarding and encouraging good behavior, rather than just punishing violations.
“It focuses on the core values of being respectful, responsible and safe," explained Mona Berry, a social worker at McCollough-Unis. "It’s an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes, and accept responsibility for choices they made."
But the policy about PDA has been a tougher pill to swallow for some parents and staff. The rule requires students to “respect personal space,” but is tweaked depending on the school.
At Stout, for example, the PDA guideline makes mention of “inappropriate physical contact (including) hugging, handholding, etc.” and applies to contact between kids of the same or opposite sexes, whether romantic in nature or not.
Student liaison Fatima Tekko explained that the student make-up at Stout requires stricter guidelines, but that interpretation of what is appropriate is still decided on a case-by-case basis.
“We visited Bryant and O.L. Smith and … twisted their idea to fit our students,” she said. “We had to be more careful because our kids are so diverse.”
Still, Tekko said it was hard for her and some other staff to adjust, as they were used to not only seeing students hug each other, but hugging the kids themselves as well.
“When we started (PBIS), it was ‘Don’t touch, don’t hug!’” she said. “But we realized we weren’t teaching them.”
“Now,” she added, “we acknowledge the good instead of the bad.”
Different Times, Different Measures?
Tekko said she believes more stringent rules on student-on-student contact are necessary in an era where kids grow up with access to Internet search engines and social media.
“Times have really changed,” she said. “Kids are a lot more affectionate than we used to be. With Facebook, Twitter, they’re learning quicker than we did and sharing more.”
And in certain populations, such as special needs kids, PBIS rules can help teach kids who have issues with learning what is appropriate in terms of PDA.
Dearborn PTA President Colette Richards said that the special needs program at O.L. Smith, where her son attends, has found rules about personal space to be extremely useful.
“They teach (students) how to not give in to the sensory-type things,” Richards said. “The paraprofessionals and employees are working to teach students … the proper way to display affection.”
Richards said PDA rules haven’t been a topic of disagreement among parents she has spoken with; however, she sees the potential for problems when schools are enforcing those rules differently.
“I think it depends on the school–how they interpret it and how they train their staff how to handle that,” she said.
It’s Tekko’s hope that by working together, Dearborn schools can set guidelines for middle school-aged kids that will transfer into high school, too.
“When they get into high school, they’ll already know the rules,” she explained. “There will already be a set of behaviors in place.”