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New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law

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Hugs, Harassment, and Humanity

What was really going on when Tyler Blackmore, the principal of Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School (in New Jersey), declared over the school’s loudspeaker that his 900 students were attending a “no hugging school”?

When this story broke back in March, it went international.

According to the press, Mr. Blackmore made the comment after witnessing some “unsuitable, physical interaction” between students.

Some of you might be wondering: What, exactly, did Mr. Blackmore see that would rise to the level of “unsuitable, physical interaction”? How could a “hug” rise to the level of “unsuitable, physical interaction”?

Image by Jesslee Cuizon @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/eelssej_/394781835/ Creative Commons 2.0

I don’t know what Mr. Blackmore witnessed, but I have some pretty good ideas. Maybe it was a hug between students that lasted for more than 2 seconds. Maybe it was a hug where both students squeezed each other really, really hard. There are many different kinds of hugs — even unwanted hugs — that might have caused Mr. Blackmore to react the way that he did.

There are countless types of hugs, including “The A-frame Hug,” “The Bear Hug,” and “The Group Hug.” (To learn more about these hugs, check out Juan Mann’s The Illustrated Guide to Free Hugs.)

There’s also “The Unreciprocated Hug” — otherwise known as “The Unwanted Hug.” This type of hug occurs when one person hugs another who does not want to be hugged.

Then there’s another kind of hug that I’m going to coin “The Uncalled-for Hug.” This type of hug occurs when one person receives a hug that is more than what she expected to receive. Perhaps a person expected an “A-frame Hug” and got a “Squeeze Hug” instead.

And then there’s “The One-sided Hug.” The one-sided hug might not be a real hug — it is really more of a sudden, quick grab by one person of another.

Last, but not least, there’s “The Sexual Hug,” which I’ll leave the reader to visualize.

Why is all of this important?

This is all important because context matters, and we have no idea what Mr. Blackmore saw or why he reacted the way he did. I don’t think Mr. Blackmore would have announced that the school was a no-hugging zone if he merely saw students giving each other a friendly “A-frame” hug that lasted 2 seconds.

Maybe it was a “One-sided Hug.” Maybe it was a “Sexual Hug.” Whatever the type of hug he saw, perhaps Mr. Blackmore thought it met the definition of harassment under the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Act.

The New Jersey Anti-Bullying Act contains broad language, and there is a provision that says:

‘harassment, intimidation or bullying’ means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication that … will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student.”

Read it again–this time more slowly:

any gesture … or physical act … that … will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student.

This is extremely broad language. Note that the law does not say that such acts must be committed repeatedly. It can be a one-time event. So if a student gives another student a “hard, unwanted” hug, that could potentially¬† fit the definition of harassment. What does “emotionally harming” mean? Well, the law is so new, we are dealing with uncharted territory, so we don’t really know for sure.

Is it possible that we might see a case down the road involving a student who has been disciplined for giving an “Uncalled-for Hug” or “Unexpected Hug” or a “Sexual Hug”? Yes, it’s possible.

But school personnel and lawyers really need to be careful about regulating social behavior among students. They need to tread carefully on how they’re approaching this issue. Touching and hugging are part of our culture, and if school personnel and lawyers are going to start defining what an “appropriate hug” is, we will likely see artificial rules that will not and cannot be uniformly enforced.

A hug can have many meanings. It can be a form of affection, sympathy, and comfort. It can mean other things too, and it’s going to be very difficult to draw lines between the different types of hugs; and school personnel cannot read their kids’ minds.

Students also need to be careful too. Students should not make false allegations against another student. Often times, though, students say and do things without really thinking about the consequences. What students say and do could have a negative social impact in their schools and beyond.

Maybe Mr. Blackmore’s school announcement was a warning to students not to do anything that resembles a “bear hug” or “sexual hug.” Maybe Mr. Blackmore wasn’t referring to the “A-frame hug” when he made his announcement. Maybe Mr. Blackmore was concerned that the type of hugs he was seeing fell under the definition of harassment according to the NJ Anti-Bullying Act.

So many questions, and unfortunately, we will probably never know what Mr. Blackmore was thinking or what his intent was when he made his announcement. On April 5, Mr. Blackmore resigned from his position as principal. According to the press, Mr. Blackmore’s resignation was a “personnel matter and the reasons were confidential.”

In the meanwhile, the kids at Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School are still free to hug their friends and classmates at school. Let’s hope that never changes.

If you’re not familiar with Juan Mann or the Free Hugs Campaign, check out the video below (music lyrics can be found here).

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