This paper opens the conversation about student-to-student touch practices, conceptions, and regulations within American public high schools. Prior research has shown that positive experiences with touch serve a vital role in child and adolescent development. Friendly touch behaviors benefit children and teen-aged persons both physiologically and psychologically. Additionally, haptic interaction is arguably the deepest form of communication. Yet scholars seldom examine how communication practices contribute to how individuals, including children, experience touch in various contexts. The current project analyzes the way touch is described, addressed, and framed in the student handbooks of public high schools from the state of Michigan. The public high school handbook provides a unique viewing angle into American discourse that evaluates both public interests and the topic of children and adolescents. Largely due to government legislation and controversy about children and sexual abuse, the topic of student-to-student touch has entered into the news media as a major issue of public debate. As more schools have instituted bans on student-tostudent touching in public schools, news reports of teenagers receiving detentions and suspensions have fueled discussions on what should and should not be allowed within public schools. While the argument continues in the public sphere, the conversation fails to address how these policies may affect students’ perceptions and actions outside of high school. The ways in which people talk about and think about touch, shapes and are also shaped by the broader cultural discourse in which touch resides. Touch is only contextually meaningful; any understanding of a particular touch always takes place in a particular situation. The paper provides examples of how the contextual nature of touch allows seemingly identical touch behaviors to be understood differently based on their context and environment.
A textual analysis of public high school handbooks in the state of Michigan reveals that the handbooks address the topic of touch as inherently sexual or violent. Although prior research has shown that schools aim to discourage bad behaviors and encourage good behaviors, the handbooks fail to encourage friendly types of touching between students and instead aim to focus on the potential negative potentialities of touching. Additionally, many of the handbooks speak of touching as an intrusion or embarrassment. Included in this paper are examples of high school handbook rules that aim to define, regulate and prohibit touch.
The discourse in the evaluated handbooks is reflective of the larger cultural conception of touch that damages human communication, as well as physiological and psychological health. Additionally, the removal of touch from interpersonal relations creates people who are less empathetic and have limited capabilities in sharing meaningful experiences with others. The conclusion of the paper offers a few ways to progress to a discourse that can talk about and understand touch in friendly and loving ways and, in turn, create a culture that is happier and more understanding and feeling than the current American society.