A rule against physical contact at a Fairfax County middle school is so strict that students can be sent to the principal's office for hugging, holding hands or even high-fiving.
Unlike some schools in the Washington area, which ban fighting or inappropriate touching, Kilmer Middle School in Vienna bans all touching — and that has some parents lobbying for a change.
Hugging was Hal Beaulieu's crime when he sat next to his girlfriend at lunch a few months ago and put his arm around her shoulder. He was given a warning, but told that repeat missteps could lead to detention.
"I think hugging is a good thing," said Hal, a seventh-grader. "I put my arm around her. It was like for 15 seconds. I didn't think it would be a big deal."
But at a school of 1,100 students that was meant to accommodate 850, school officials think some touching can turn into a big deal. They've seen pokes lead to fights, gang signs in the form of handshakes or girls who are uncomfortable being hugged but embarrassed to say anything.
"You get into shades of gray," Kilmer Principal Deborah Hernandez said. "The kids say, 'If he can high-five, then I can do this.' "
Hernandez said the no-touching rule is meant to ensure that all students are comfortable and crowded hallways and lunchrooms stay safe. She said school officials are allowed to use their judgment in enforcing the rule. Typically, only repeat offenders are reprimanded.
'Making out goes too far'
But such a strict policy doesn't seem necessary to 13-year-old Hal and his parents, who have written a letter to the county school board asking for a review of the rule. Hugging is encouraged in their home, and their son has been taught to greet someone with a handshake.
Hal said he feels he knows what's appropriate and what's not.
"I think you should be able to shake hands, high-five and maybe a quick hug," he said. "Making out goes too far."
His parents said they agree that teenagers need to have clear limits but don't want their son to be taught that physical contact is bad.
"How do kids learn what's right and what's wrong?" Henri Beaulieu asked. "They are all smart kids, and they can draw lines. If they cross them, they can get in trouble. But I don't think it would happen too often."