Matthew Almodovar likes holding his girlfriend's hand during lunch or when they're walking to class. But at Culver City Middle School, that display of affection could land the couple in trouble.
At the only public middle school in Culver City, it is against school policy for students to hold hands, hug or kiss on campus. Perhaps more important, the "no contact" rule also prohibits students from hitting, shoving or pushing classmates.
Schools nationwide have policies to prevent violence and sexual harassment, but some go further -- such as creating a rule against touching. In March, one middle school student in Bend, Ore., was sent to detention after repeatedly defying a teacher's warning to refrain from hugging another student. A similar situation occurred at a junior high in Euless, Texas, in 2003.
Many educators say the policy teaches students what is -- and isn't -- appropriate behavior at school, which they say is especially important during the middle school years. What's OK at the mall or the movies, some educators say, isn't necessarily OK at school, where the focus should be on academics.
There are others, however, who say that although in theory the policy could be effective, it is nearly impossible to implement because enforcement is subjective and inconsistent.
The policy came out of a meeting two years ago when administrators, counselors and teachers discussed bullying, a topic that former Principal Patricia Jaffe said was "extremely important" at middle schools everywhere. Jaffe was principal at the 1,739-student school until October and is now an assistant superintendent of the Culver City Unified School District.
Whether the policy has been effective in decreasing on-campus violence is unclear. Principal Jerry Kosch says the number of suspensions related to fighting, bullying and sexual harassment has declined, but some students and parents say fights regularly break out at or near the school.
Kosch emphasized that the no-contact policy is just one of many campus programs to combat fighting, bullying and sexual harassment.
The policy is basically an unwritten rule, Kosch said. Nowhere does it appear in the school's Student/Parent Handbook, distributed at the beginning of each academic year.
Rather, he said, the no-contact rule is a "catch phrase for administrators, teachers and security to say to the students [that is] short and to the point."
Most infractions of the policy result in a warning; but more serious behavior, such as fighting or kissing, could result in calls home or even suspension.
But enforcing the policy is difficult because teachers and students interpret it differently.
Some students said it was their understanding that all hugs, even between friends, were banned; others said they believed only contact between boyfriends and girlfriends was forbidden. (Administrators say hugging between friends is permitted.)
"We can't touch each other. We couldn't even do this," eighth-grader Brenda Esquivel said as she put her arm around a friend's shoulder.
During a recent lunch, various couples on campus were holding hands; most declined to talk to a reporter, fearing they would get in trouble.
If Assistant Principal Hiram Celis saw them, they'd get an earful.
"When I'm out there and see something inappropriate, I'll let them know. I don't think parents know they have boyfriends and girlfriends," he said, adding that he believes holding hands could "lead to more intimate situations."
Kosch agreed. "You let them hold hands, next thing they're on the grass" kissing, he said. When he sees two students holding hands, he said, he usually gives them a funny look or simply says, "no contact."
But Claudette DuBois, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, said she wouldn't reprimand students for holding hands.
The policy "is not about public displays of affection. Kissing behind the trees will go on forever," she said. Rather, it is designed to curb "inappropriate touching," DuBois said.
Matthew Almodovar, the seventh-grader who likes to walk hand in hand with his girlfriend, Taylor Lankford, said they had never been scolded. Likewise, seventh-grader Stephanie Lozada also said she and her boyfriend had not gotten in trouble for walking with their hands locked.
Inconsistency in enforcing the policy could undermine it, said Paul Chung, assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA who also works at the UCLA/Rand Center for Adolescent Health Promotion.
"When you're trying to extinguish a behavior, the trick is to be absolutely consistent so that every time the behavior is experienced, they get knocked down.... They know they're never going to get away with it," he said.
Michael Carr, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Secondary School Principals, said the assumption that holding hands would lead to sexual behavior was far-fetched.