Should Schools Be No-Touch Zones?

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Should this be banned? Photo by {just jennifer} via Flickr
Should this be banned?
Photo by {just jennifer} via Flickr

A 17-year-old high school has been suspended for touching a teacher.

Sam McNair, a senior, entered the classroom and hugged his teacher from behind. The teacher says that his cheeks and lips also brushed against her face and neck and cheek.

The teen — like the 6-year-old Colorado boy we talked about last week — was suspended for sexual harassment. The school says that the teen has a previous disciplinary record; the teacher says she’d warned him before about inappropriate hugs. The teen says she did not.

I don’t know what exactly what happened in that classroom or that school. From the looks of this, though, it certainly seems as though his touch was unwanted:


The Internet, once again, is alight in speculation and conversation. Some think McNair’ punishment was far too extreme; some think the student should have known better than to hug a teacher.

 Me? I hate that we’re living in a world where hugs can be construed as criminal activities, and where students and educators alike are afraid to touch under any circumstances, for fear of possible legal ramifications.

Look, I get it: Inappropriate touch is wrong. No one should be touched, by anyone, in a way that makes them uncomfortable. Schools should be a safe place. Teachers should not prey on students, and teachers should not be subjected to any kind of harassment from students.

But there’s a reason these cases are attracting public attention. On some level, we know that touch is good. We know that human beings are designed to touch and be touched in all kinds of amazing ways. Humans have used touch to communicate and comfort and connect forever. Touch, in fact, is so essential to humans that human infants who are left untouched fail to develop normally.

The research is unequivocal: human infants have to be touched, a lot, in the first year of life to develop normally. Biologically and instinctually, we know this. It’s why mothers and fathers cuddle their infants close, why big brothers and sisters grasp a baby’s hand or stroke her back when she cries. And babies are pretty much built in a way that guarantees they will be touched often; after all, they can’t move by themselves, dress themselves or feed themselves.

As a society, we do a pretty good job of nurturing our infants with touch. But as our kids get older and more independent, we take a more hands-off approach. Some of that, too, is natural: older kids can do more for themselves, and don’t need as much hands-on care. The need for touch doesn’t go away, though. Researchers have found, for instance, that verbal reassurance combined with touch is much more effective than words alone when it comes to relieving preschoolers’ distress.

Yet parents touch kids less as the kids get older. Childcare workers touch kids less as the kids get older. And as soon as kids enter school — which, in many places happens as early as age 3 or 4 —  many of them will have to contend with strict and unyielding no-touch policies.

Sam McNair’s case didn’t attract attention because it was an anomaly. It attracted attention because his story is becoming all too common. Middle schools in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and even Australia have banned touching and hugging between students and suspended or otherwise disciplined students for violating the policy. (Teachers, of course, refrain from touching students for fear of lawsuits.) Even some elementary schools are getting in on the action. St. Mary’s County Public School system in Maryland is considering a policy which will prohibit school volunteers from hugging anyone but their own children. An elementary school in British Columbia developed a “no touching” rule (which banned everything from hand holding to imaginary fighting games) in an attempt to teach students about appropriate play.

As a caring, compassionate adult, I cannot support these measures.

St. Mary’s County Public School system says they are considering the ban because some parents expressed concern about other adults touching their children at school. A blanket ban on touch, however, would restrict a caring adult from hugging a five-year-old who’s just scraped his knees on the playground. A blanket ban on touch means that a classroom volunteer can’t hug a kid who has tears in his eyes, whether the tears are due to academic struggle, problems at home or trouble at school.

As for the no-touching rule between students? Have you ever watched young children play? Left to their own devices, young boys often play like puppies. It is completely normal — and beneficial — for young boys (and girls) to touch and tousle.

Blanket bans on touch ask humans to suppress a part of their humanity — and when we restrict adults from touching children in a caring, compassionate manner, we also deprive children of the opportunity to learn about healthy, emotionally constructive touch. 

What if we taught critical thinking and self-empowerment instead of instituting inflexible policies? I sympathize with educators; they face a lot of pressure and work in extremely difficult environments. They must educate and support children from all kinds of backgrounds, and they have to do it with limited resources. But while one-size-fits-all bans may be easiest for the schools, they are NOT best for students.

In fact, some evidence suggests that a lack of physical touch may directly contribute to some of the problems in our schools and society. One study found that French children were touched more than American children by both their parents and their peers. The French children, both as preschoolers and as teens, also behaved less aggressively toward one another.

Another study found that NBA teams whose players touched each other more early in the season tended to be more successful than teams who touched less. A Psychology Today article about the story states, “the effect of touch was independent of salary or performance, eliminating the possibility that players touch more if they’re more skilled or better compensated.” Researchers speculate that touch strengthens social bonds and cooperation.

Stronger social bonds and improved cooperation? Sounds like something we could use in our schools and society.

What do you think of no-touch policies in school? 


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