A 12-year-old Black boy in foster care was handed down a four-day suspension and accused of physical assault for hugging a gym teacher at a Massachusetts school.
The student was called out during a dodgeball game in gym class Sept. 27 at Forest Grove Middle School, according to the Worcester Telegram.
The school is located about 50 miles west of Boston in Worcester.
“I was told he had put his hands on a teacher,” Julie Orozco, the boy’s foster mom, told NBC Boston recently. “I was shocked and asked for details on what happened, and then I was told that he hugged his gym teacher.”
While news outlets are not identifying the child, Orozco said he was fooling around with friends when the teacher made him sit out.
“And then I went over just like, and I gave her a hug and said, ‘Please, I don’t want to sit out’ because I like the game,” he told NBC Boston.
He said the teacher even allowed him to rejoin the group after sitting out for five minutes.
“At the end of the day, I just hugged her, nothing really happened,” the seventh grader said.
Still, the child was called to the principal’s office the next period and initially reprimanded with a 10-day suspension, NBC Boston reported.
Officials only reduced the suspension to four days when the child’s mother advocated for him.
“I don’t expect the teacher to have to be OK with being touched or being hugged, but I do expect as an educator that she educate what the boundaries are in her classroom,” Orozco told NBC.
Orozco told the Telegram despite her son’s difficult upbringing, he has had good grades and avoided getting into trouble at Forest Grove.
She said after several phone calls, emails and a hearing, she got his school record reduced to “disruption of school.”
There is no mention of how a hug should be handled in the Worcester Public Schools’ student discipline policies.
The policy instead is more general and states:
“In every case of student misconduct for which suspension may be imposed [except for offenses referenced in the note at the end of this policy], a Principal shall consider ways to re-engage the student in learning; and avoid using long-term suspension from school as a consequence until alternatives have been tried.”
Orozco said in a meeting with Superintendent Maureen Binienda and other district officials Friday, that she was told the hug was too “tight, forceful and aggressive,” and that a 12-year-old should have known it was inappropriate.
“If you can admit to me that you didn’t have a mechanism or a process, or any way of informing students what your expectations were, but then in the same breath you say to me, ‘He’s 12, he should know hugs are not OK,’ it’s confounding,” Orozco told NBC Boston.
Orozco, who was invited by the school committee to speak at their meeting Thursday, told the Worcester Telegram when asked, that she believes race might have played a factor, as the boy is Black and the teacher is white.
“I absolutely do,” she said.
She also told the newspaper a school administrator told her the hug could even could be construed as sexual harassment.
When Orozco picked her son up at school the day of the incident, “when he saw me, he just started crying,” she told the Telegram.
“The thing he kept saying (afterward) was, ‘I’m just so confused,'” she said. “‘If she didn’t want me to hug her, why didn’t she tell me that?'”