Local: Education

St. Mary's County restricts hugs in elementary schools

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Local,Maryland,Education,Rachel Baye

A new rule in St. Mary's County public elementary schools bans an adult from hugging any student other than his or her own son or daughter.

The rule is one of several developed in the school system in the wake of recent episodes of school violence.

But some critics say the hugging rule has gone too far.

Under the restriction, a student would be forbidden from hugging a grandparent, aunt or uncle who visits during the day or picks the student up after school, said Board of Education member Cathy Allen. Rather than establish these kinds of rules, parents should teach their children to use good judgment -- to walk away from and tell a parent or teacher about an inappropriate or uncomfortable situation, she said.

"I'm sad that we as a society have come to a place where fear is the first thing that comes to mind," Allen said. "We've got to find a way to strike a balance between trust and suspicion, between care and concern."

A committee of parents, teachers and school administrators developed the rule, along with others that require visitors to have their picture taken when they enter the school and prohibit siblings from visiting students at school.

"We are in the process of revising that policy to bring it up to date with the current needs to keep our children safe in the 21st century," Superintendent Michael Martirano said, pointing to the December massacre of 20 students and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. "Our world has changed completely with the Sandy Hook incident, and we need to make sure we know who's in our schools and why they're there at all times."

The guidelines -- which the committee began developing before the Sandy Hook tragedy -- are in effect for the rest of the school year, according to Allen. However, the formal policies behind them are still being finalized. Martirano said he expects them to take effect by the start of the next school year.

The hugging rule was suggested by parents whose children had been made uncomfortable by an unwanted hug from an adult at school or on the playground, said Trish Post, president of the St. Mary's County Council of PTAs and a member of the committee that developed the rules. It follows similar established policies that require all parent volunteers to undergo a background check before entering the school.

However, the rule has not been as well-received as the committee expected and will likely be tweaked before becoming official policy, Post said, calling it a "work in progress."

"Nobody wants to limit especially parent-to-child affection," she said.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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