Despite kids' needs, teachers are taught hands-off policy

SUSAN REIMER

October 07, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

Teachers are not like the rest of us. They choose to be in the company of children who are not their own.

Teachers not only like teaching children, but teachers also like listening to what they think, answering their endless questions, hearing about their troubles.

And teachers like touching children, too. Enter any school in the morning before the first bell rings, and you will see youngsters returning to last year's teacher for a reassuring hug. It is part of the way teachers communicate with children.

As a parent, those hugs reassured me, too. It is good to know that my child means more to that teacher than just another line in a grade book.

But in Anne Arundel County this school year, hugs have disappeared. When Northeast High School teacher Ronald W. Price admitted having sex with high school girls who were his students, he set in motion a fearful chain reaction.

Some teachers have been told that they may not touch children, even in tenderness. Principals have been told if they receive a report of inappropriate physical contact between a teacher and a child, they are to call the county Department of Social Services immediately. They are not permitted to contact the teacher or student first to sort out the facts.

"It was stressed to us in the strongest terms," says a male high school teacher. "No hugging, no placing an arm around a shoulder. No touching. If you want to give a child a warm fuzzy, you have to do it verbally."

A principal says he has gotten questions from his kindergarten and first-grade teachers such as these: Can I no longer help a child tuck in his shirt or pull up his zipper? Can I no longer help a child button his coat?

Another elementary school teacher found herself making a tense, split-second decision to allow an unhappy and motherless little girl to put her head on the teacher's lap during reading group.

"This is a very frightening feeling," says the teacher. "If you know your intent is to comfort a child, the idea that someone may misunderstand is very threatening."

Dr. Patricia Emory, who is directing the Board of Education's efforts to educate teachers and staff on child abuse and sexual harassment, says teachers will feel better about the policies after she has a chance to meet with them all.

"There are no prohibitions against hugging," Dr. Emory says. "Teachers are nervous. There is some misinformation out there. And the reporting procedures have not changed. It has always been the procedure that reports were to be made to DSS."

Teachers may find that touching and hugging will still be acceptable in elementary school. But regardless of what Dr. Emory's training will teach, some secondary principals have told their teachers they don't want it.

"It has to be different at the middle and high school level," says one principal. "That is the age when children have a sexual identity. Hugging at that level can be a very confusing signal."

I don't think hugging gives a confused signal at all. There is a big difference between a hug and sex backstage of the school auditorium as practiced by Price. There is a big difference between compassion and seduction. Part of our job as adults is to teach children the difference.

A male high school teacher says he has told three girls who stopped by his hallway monitor spot each morning for a have-a-good-day hug that he can no longer greet them that way. They were confused, he says. Surely the fallout from the Price trial did not apply to them.

"And the sad part is, the ones who come to you for hugs are often the ones who are not getting them at home.

"And if the kids don't have it at home, how are they going to pass it on?" he asks. "That kind of physical reassurance is something that this species needs."

The teacher explained that students don't confide in an adult just because a sign on the door says "Guidance." High school kids know instinctively whom they can trust.

"Kids have come to me with scary problems. Things they believe they can never tell their parents. Often that results in a hug, a touch of support or reassurance. What the board is telling me now is that there must be a distance between me and the students. Nothing more than instruction."

When corporal punishment was rightly banned, teachers had to learn to administer discipline without force. Now, sadly, teachers must learn to administer compassion without touching.

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