Before this week, 14-year-old Ella Fishbough had never been in trouble at school.
The cheerful, curly-haired eighth-grader’s undoing came when she learned that a male friend was having a bad day. As consolation, Ella put her arms around him in a hug.
“It was literally for a second,” the eighth-grader told Click Orlando. But that moment earned her a morning in detention — as well as a blemish on her formerly spotless disciplinary record.
Ella attends Jackson Heights Middle School in Oviedo, Florida, part of the Seminole County School District. The district’s code of conduct prohibits “inappropriate or obscene acts” including “unwelcome or inappropriate touching, or any other physical act that is considered to be offensive, socially unacceptable or not suitable for an educational setting.”
It is at each principal’s discretion to determine what kind of touching is inappropriate. According to WFTV Orlando, hugging was banned altogether at Jackson Heights this year, in addition to holding hands, linking arms and kissing.
All of these actions are considered by the school to be PDA — Public Displays of Affection — and can result in a range of disciplinary actions decided upon by school administrators.
Ella’s detention notice lists the reason for punishment as “second PDA.” Click Orlando reports that she got a warning last month after the same boy she hugged put a hand on her head.
“I do think about inappropriate touching and boys and girls at this age having feelings for one another,” Ella’s mother, Kathy Fishbough, told WFTV. “But that’s not what we’re dealing with here. And if an administration can’t tell the difference between a friendly ‘How ya doin’?’ hug and an inappropriate hug, then I think we have another big problem.”
Fishbough thinks it is problematic that the PDA policy isn’t consistently enforced district-wide, leaving open a broad spectrum of physical behaviors that could be considered “inappropriate.”
In a statement to WFTV, Michael Lawrence, a Seminole County Public Schools communications officer, said the following: “Because we are unable to discuss student discipline issues, we cannot provide specific details on this incident other than to say that all levels of discipline are outlined and followed in the SCPS Student Conduct & Discipline Code.”
“Depending on the nature and type of the offense, as well as repeated behavior(s) and/or misconduct,” he continued, “there are various categories a particular violation could fall in.”
In a conversation with Fishbough, Jackson Heights principal Sarah Mansur-Blythe said the PDA rule will continue to be strictly enforced — even in the case of family members.
“I did ask the principal, ‘If something had happened in our family, and she needed to console her cousin, or her cousin wanted to console her, would Ella get in trouble?” Fishbough told Click Orlando. “She said, ‘Yes, ma’am. She would get a PDA.'”
The television station reports that the school district’s legal department will be taking a “close look” at Jackson Heights’ student manual.
Similar incidents at schools across the country have drawn attention to the seeming rigidity of policies on public displays of affection. Almost exactly four years ago, two other Florida middle-school students, this time in Palm Bay, were given in-school suspensions for sharing a hug even though their principal said he believed their behavior was innocent.
Megan Coulter, an Illinois eighth-grader, gained a considerable following after the Associated Press reported in 2007 that she was labeled a “second offender” by her middle school for gently hugging two different people. Coulter was punished with two days in detention.
“You know, hugs lead to other things,” Mascoutah School District superintendent Sam McGowen told CNN, saying he didn’t want students to be distracted.
Many of these policies have been in place for at least the last decade, and some were approved by parent-teacher committees. But parents like the Fishboughs believe that the rules have been taken too far, to the point that Ella is now afraid to even touch anybody, Click Orlando reports.
She is scheduled to serve her detention this Friday morning.