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St. Mary’s public schools have backed off implementing new rules for visitors that initially limited homemade food and hugs for students from anyone other than their own parents, Superintendent Michael Martirano said this week.

What were called “best practices” for elementary school visitors outlined at a school board meeting last week should have been presented only as recommendations, the superintendent said Thursday, and they were incorrectly announced by school officials as new rules that would go into effect immediately.

The original document said: “Parents visiting in the cafeteria should refrain from disciplining another child. Parents visiting in the cafeteria should not hug or touch another child.”

The revised document says: “Parents are encouraged to follow guidelines provided in our volunteer training manual on best practices when working in schools.”

The original document said: “Registered volunteers may play or interact only with their own child (i.e. pushing on a swing). Registered volunteers may interact with their children and should not engage in prolonged conversation or play with other students.”

The revised document says: “Parents should follow guidelines provided in our volunteer training manual on best practices when working in schools.”

The original document said: “Siblings and other non-enrolled students should not visit during the school day.”

The revised document says: “To prevent distractions and disruptions from learning, non-enrolled students are discouraged from visiting during the school day but are welcome at family events.”

The original document said: “Party invitations should not be distributed at school.”

The revised document says: “Communication between families for personal arrangements or events may be coordinated through the local PTA/PTO directories and contact information.”

In addition, those recommendations were revised Wednesday, and hugs are no longer mentioned. The new recommendations are up for discussion only now, Martirano said, and could influence a change in the school board’s policy that will be considered later this spring or summer.

The original rules drew international media attention and spurred hundreds of comments about the school system, some of which were nasty, he said.

Martirano acknowledged that school staff should not have said the recommendations were going into effect at schools immediately. He also said that appropriate hugs are allowed in schools.

“I admit the message was distorted, from us,” and then in turn some media and social networks sensationalized the news, he said.

He said the initial presentation to the school board on March 13 was simply “a compilation of the summary of discussions,” that had occurred last fall during four meetings of a visitor committee made up of several parents and principals. The rules were summarized at that meeting in a PowerPoint presentation.

In a recorded telephone call to parents Wednesday, Martirano said the local and national media reports had sensationalized concerns and examples that were presented at the meeting. The superintendent acknowledged Thursday that the information presented in The Enterprise in a March 15 article was an accurate representation of what was presented at the meeting.

This week, some elementary schools sent out the original rules that included limits on hugging students. By Wednesday the revised recommendations were sent out, with much softer wording.

In the revised recommendations, limiting hugs is not mentioned. Also not mentioned was forbidding distribution of birthday invitations at schools, part of the rules originally presented. Those topics and others will be addressed in a volunteer training manual or by individual school parent groups.

“We’ve got to be a friendly environment. We’ve got to be welcoming. But at the same time, we have to be vigilant,” Martirano said.

School staff will develop a volunteer training manual that will be used at all schools, he said. That manual will give specifics about appropriate and inappropriate touching as well as other best practices for visitors and volunteers, the superintendent said.

“If a student wants to hug me, I’m going to hug him back,” Cathy Allen, board member, said Wednesday.

Allen said that she stands by her first reaction to hearing about the no-hugs rule. “I think this is horrible,” she said at the time.

She said the school board has received many comments about the best practices.

“I thought they were quite clear in what was being said” about the rules and their immediate implementation at the March 13 school board meeting, Allen said.

“I think the prescriptive nature of the rules [that were presented last week] are of a concern, overall,” she said. Allen said she thinks the best practices should be phrased more as “expectations,” and that would allow individual schools more leeway in their interpretations.

Allen said ways of protecting children other than simply banning hugs could include teaching children how to react when they are in an uncomfortable situation, providing parents instructions about how to talk to their children about such situations, and offering parent volunteer training.

Some schools already offer training to parent volunteers, but standardizing the training could improve the process, she said.

“Hugs are allowed,” Sal Raspa, board chair, said Thursday. “You have to be aware and vigilant, obviously, in this day in time.”

Last week during the meeting Raspa expressed outrage that the school system was forced to consider rules on hugs because of current culture.

Monique Marsh of Leonardtown, one of the 10 parents on the visitor committee, said she stands by the best practices as originally presented, and that they are reasonable and at the same time improve safety at schools.

She said that she agrees with the no-hugging recommendation, even though she is used to getting hugs regularly from children other than her own when she volunteers at schools. Still, she said she would have a hard time turning away a student who wanted a hug.

“We do plan on meeting again” and reviewing the response from the community, Marsh said.

Another committee member, parent Kathy DeAngelis of Mechanicsville, said she hopes that schools won’t stop volunteers from appropriately hugging children. “We can’t let society control us,” she said. She encouraged parents to visit schools to see what actually occurs.

“In the end, I was hoping common sense would prevail,” she said.

For instance, the rules announced last week said siblings not enrolled in school should not visit during the school day. DeAngelis said that younger siblings certainly should be welcomed to certain classroom events, with a teacher’s permission, and to assemblies where families are invited. The revised best practices issued this week specifically allow for siblings at “family events.”

“We’ve got to get this in order,” DeAngelis said.

She said she is looking forward to the continued meetings of the committee to iron out issues.

jyeatman@somdnews.com