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Student suspended for hugging teacher: personal space vs. the right to hug

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On Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, WTVD-TV reported that a Georgia student was suspended for hugging a teacher. A public outcry has commenced over the one year suspension given to the student. During an interview, the student’s mother says the suspension will prevent her son, a high school senior, from graduating. The action also places the chances of full scholarships in jeopardy.

Sam McNair, a 17-year old high school senior at Duluth High School, was suspended for the remainder of this school year. The suspension is due to a hug, caught on the school’s video camera. McNair hugged the teacher, but she claimed it was more than just a friendly hug as McNair’s lips touched her cheek and neck. Sam McNair denies those allegations, saying that he hugs many of his teachers and never had a complaint. That includes this teacher.

The teacher has a different version of the hug. She claims that she had warned McNair in the past that hugging teachers was inappropriate. In the surveillance video, it is clear that the hug was unwanted contact. Because this conduct violated the Gwinnett Public School’s sexual harassment policy, McNair received a long-term suspension.

What comes into play here is more than whether an innocent hug is a punishable offense. Teachers have a right to personal space. At age 17, Sam McNair is very close to being a legal adult. He needs to understand what types of actions are appropriate and what is not. If he were to hug a female co-worker the way he hugged his teacher—it is likely he would lose his job. This is the same standard that teachers are held to. If the teacher were the one who did the hugging, she most likely would have been dismissed and been unable to work in another school setting again.

Does a student, who for all intents and purposes is a man, have the right to randomly grab a female teacher or student? And if he has this right, does it supersede the teacher’s right to personal space and the right to avoid unwanted contact? She claims she previously warned him about hugging. McNair overstepped the boundaries of personal space.

McNair’s mother says that this action will preclude him from full scholarships and the ability to attend college. Reports say that this is not McNair’s only disciplinary action and that he has been suspended before for different reasons—never for sexual harassment. Do those other suspensions impact his ability for full scholarships or is this incident being used as a scapegoat?

Finally, the Gwinnett Public School system has to provide tutoring or access to an alternative high school if they are going to suspend McNair for the remainder of the year. This is the way it works, so he will not be without education during that time unless his parents decline those options. While he may not graduate from Duluth High School, he should still be on track to graduate at an alternative school. Yes, this is less prestigious than a traditional school and there are stigmas attached to it. There are choices, if he chooses not to accept them, then it is he who is at fault and not the school district. What ever happened to holding someone accountable for their actions?.

Lynda Altman is very concerned about the state of the public schools in Arkansas and the United States. She writes a blog called Homeschooling When Mom has Cancer. Get notices when this page is updated by clicking on the subscribe link, by email, or contact Lynda @fusgeyer on Twitter.

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