Teen Says Innocent Hug Led to Year-Long Suspension

photo:CBS/Atlantaphoto:CBS/AtlantaA high school senior from Duluth, Georgia, has been suspended for the rest of the academic year for hugging his teacher. He says he was trying to brighten her day; she calls it sexual harassment. A school surveillance video captured the incident. It shows Sam McNair, 17, embracing the teacher, who has not been identified, from behind. She then pushes him away and he releases her and turns away. The teacher claims that his lips touched her neck, which he denies. She also alleges that she had warned him in the past about inappropriate physical contact.

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The young man's mother, April McNair, says she never heard any complaints in the past and is worried that the suspension could seriously affect her son's ability to graduate and attend college. "He's a senior; he plays football and was getting ready for lacrosse season. By suspending him, you are stripping him of the opportunity to get a full scholarship for athletics," she told CBS Atlanta, adding that she and her son are "huggers." Sam McNair said the gesture was innocent and said of himself, "I'm the most loving person I know."

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The school can't comment on the specifics of the incident, but Sloan Roach, spokesperson for the Gwinnett County School District, which oversees Duluth High, told Yahoo Shine by email, "Hearing officers consider witness testimony, a review of the known facts, and a student's past disciplinary history — including long-term suspensions that result in alternative school placement — when determining consequences. If a parent has concerns about the outcome of a panel, he or she is entitled to appeal the decision to the Gwinnett County Board of Education." And April McNair, who could not be reached for comment, told CBS that she plans to do exactly that.

Over the past few days, two petitions have appeared online saying the school went too far by calling the hug sexual harassment and handing out a severe punishment. A commenter on a Change.org petition (which has more than 1,000 signatures in 24 hours) wrote, "Sam seems to be innocent. IF this teacher was offended by hugs, she should have contacted Sam's mother long before she took it to this measure." Another wrote, "No child should be denied education & such a gesture should not ruin a future."

The controversial suspension comes at a time when hugging in schools has become part of the national conversation. Over the last decade, hugging as a greeting — especially among teens — has become a trend in the United States. This may be one reason that schools across the country are grappling with what constitutes appropriate physical interaction between teachers, students, and parents (with kids who are not their own) on school grounds. It's common for teachers to be officially prohibited from hugging students, and some districts have banned high school and middle school students from embracing each other. Earlier this year, a Maryland elementary school made national news when it banned younger kids from hugging.

While critics say that schools are overreacting, Stephen Brock, a professor of psychology and president of the National Association of School Psychologists, says it's important that students are taught that hugging is not always OK. While Brock says he can't comment on the McNair case, he tells Yahoo Shine, "A nurturing, caregiving, supportive hug (for example, a sideways hug, with one arm around a person's shoulder) has the potential to be very helpful in times of stress…Such physical contact, however, can also make a distressed individual very uncomfortable…Consequently, my recommendation is always to ask for permission before giving a hug, and to respect both the verbal and nonverbal cues suggesting that a hug is not welcome." He adds, "Students need to understand that a hug offered to someone who does not want one is inappropriate (even if they are just trying to be supportive)."

McNair says he thought his "hug might help." While many aspects of this incident still need to be sorted out by the school and his mother, what we do know is that, whatever his intention, this hug didn't help the teacher — or him.

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