By Kelly Wallace
Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
(CNN) — To Sam McNair, a 17-year-old high school senior in Duluth, Georgia, it was an innocent hug.
“You never know what someone’s going through,” McNair told CNN affiliate WGCL in Atlanta. “A hug might help.”
It didn’t in this case because after McNair hugged a teacher, he ended up with a year-long suspension from Duluth High School, putting his college plans in jeopardy.
“He’s a senior; he plays football. He was getting ready for lacrosse season, and you are stripping him of the opportunity to even get a full scholarship for athletics for college,” April McNair, Sam’s mother, told WGCL.
The elder McNair, who says she and her son call themselves huggers, said she was dumbfounded to learn of her son’s suspension after hugging a teacher. (We were not able to reach the McNairs for comment. We sent April McNair a message via Facebook but have not heard back.)
Surveillance video captures the hug in question, showing Sam placing his arms around the teacher and giving her a hug. The teacher then pushes him away.
According to a discipline report obtained by WGCL, the teacher said Sam’s lips and cheeks touched her neck and that she had warned Sam about hugging in the past.
Asked if he kissed the teacher, Sam told the television reporter he did not. He said he has hugged teachers many times before, including this teacher, and has never been warned.
In a statement, Sloan Roach, a spokesperson for the Gwinnett County Public Schools, told CNN, “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,” Roach added.
Since this is a discipline issue, the law prohibits the district from sharing details about the student’s situation or the student’s past discipline history, said the spokesperson.
Sam told WGCL he does have a discipline record and previous suspensions but not for sexual harassment.
“I have five months left in my senior year. I don’t see why they would take that away from me,” said Sam.
His mother plans to appeal the school board’s decision and said the school should have notified her if there were any problems with his hugging before suspending him and threatening his college future.
On her Facebook page, she posted a Change.org petition, calling for the school district to “revisit a year-long suspension for hugging a teacher.” The petition had more than 200 signatures as of Monday evening.
Reaction online has been mixed, with many believing the punishment might be severe but raising questions about Sam’s prior history.
“Our zero tolerance is taken a bit too far, but I have to reserve my comments since I am curious what his ‘previous records’ of suspension were about, as well as his disciplinary record,” said Sue Scheff, a parenting advocate.
“But I don’t think hugging constitutes sexual harassment unless he has intent otherwise and it doesn’t seem that way,” said Scheff.
Some commenters said the allegation that the teacher raised the issue before with Sam was a key point.
“If she has warned him before and he did it again and his hand or face touches her where she believes it’s inappropriate, like (the) neck or breast, it’s textbook sexual harassment,” said a viewer on WGCL’s website.
But said another commenter, “This is crazy. Now we can’t hug people anymore. What in the world?”
“Something so, so innocent can be perceived as something totally opposite,” said Sam.
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