It’s Liability Baby: How Schools are Driving the Mental Health Crisis in Youth

The major cause of so many of our social problems, even violence in school, comes down to one major issue — our lack of intimacy with each other. Everyone needs and appreciates love.

As very social creatures, humans need touch. They need emotional and physical intimacy. Our schools’ push to make the environment safer for kids and teens is understandable, but the flaw lies in misunderstanding the difference between safety and liability. The cultural fear and reality of being sued is having a severe impact on the mental health of our youth.

Our focus on money, making money, and being successful because of money is what we believe will make us loved and happy. Such fosters shallow relationships that focus more on our predatory instincts than humanity. Therefore, fear of being sued trumps safety. Telling kids they cannot hold hands, touch one another, or hug a teacher or adult is not protecting them. Rather, they are being compromised because they need human touch. Yet, many schools forbid contact in the name of safety when it’s fear that the school in our county will be sued.

Money is the driver. Kids grow up in a sterile culture that tells them to be noticed at all costs and to have followers for the sake of having followers. Success means being popular and having money, but few institutions focus on the quality of human interactions with those right in front of us. Often in media, we get only simple and shallow explanations. Complex human beings become nothing more than stereotyped caricatures which, in turn, feeds our anger. Of course, being noticed means being everything that we are not. On the one hand, our parents have already planned our whole lives before we are born. We are bound to disappoint them, but the culture demands that every person save the world.

But our parents’ limiting expectations for us and society leave us starved for one thing, true intimacy with other human beings. Our focus on material goods, “Hey how much do you make?” is antisocial and the focus on liability strips human beings of empathy. Add that many spiritual, religious, and even therapeutic approaches focus on solitude, being alone, and taking care of oneself only adds to what’s becoming an increasingly antisocial nation and world.

The Intimacies Explained

For most in the United States, intimacy means sexual intimacy. That is not true at all. There is emotional and physical intimacy, as well as sexual intimacy. Physical and sexual intimacy is about touch, but there is a difference between hugging someone (physical intimacy) and having foreplay with them (sexual intimacy). I can sit with my brother and have an intimate moment with him discussing the pet animals we had as kids. I am sharing intimacy with him, but there is no sex involved. Two heterosexual men can embrace and rub each other’s backs. Such is both physical and emotional intimacy.

Physical and emotional intimacy are being conflated into sexual intimacy with kids and teens. What keeps young people safe is knowledge, not ignorance. In our culture sex is abuse. Anything sexual is abuse. Such could not be further from the truth. I often note that sexual violence is not sexual. It is violence, period. But for our kids, we need to focus on intimacy which will later help their sexual intimacy with others.

Let’s say I get off my school bus and am walking to the Middle School. I run into a 13-year-old girl. She sees me and yells out, “Mr. Earl, I love you! I love you, Mr. Earl!” As I approach her, she puts up her hand toward me. I put my hand in hers lightly squeeze it and then let it go. I smile at her, acknowledging her presence, and then we part ways.

What I shared with her was an intimate moment. I appreciated it as much as she did, but a lot of decisions were made by me in a few seconds. First, as a male school bus driver, I have to be very careful how I interact with minors, especially minor females. I am a heterosexual male after all. The girl initiated contact. She put her hand toward me. I responded by smiling at her and putting my hand in her hand. My light squeeze of her hand was acknowledging her “I love you” statements subtly and appropriately. I would not say, “I love you” back because that would seem out of line, but I don’t want to discourage her from showing affection and vocalizing that affection. If I tried to correct her, I do nothing but embarrass her and shut down any future chance at appropriate intimacy between an adult and an adolescent. Schools are wrong to discourage physical contact. They must educate and embrace appropriate contact.

I would never initiate a hug from any minor, especially adolescent and teenage girls. However, if a teenager initiates a hug, I may choose to hug them if we are in the presence of other staff or video recording devices. They are practically adults in high school, and people hug. They hug naturally. Still, I would never initiate contact except in a crisis or first-aid situation. Then, I would vocalize to the person why and what I am doing before acting.

As an adult guardian, I have a lot of leverage over my bus riders. If I initiate a hug from a teenage girl, I am putting her in a compromising situation. She may feel compelled to hug me. If she rejects the advance, she may worry I will retaliate against her. In such cases, I give my teenagers the leverage and prerogative, and if something inappropriate seems to emerge, then I will address it with them and make note of it in writing.

The key is that we need to establish and maintain human intimacy between adults, of course, but also with adults, teens, and kids. What I showed the adolescent girl in this scenario was an act of love, the acknowledging and squeezing lightly of her hand.

Fist bumps are not intimate, nor are leprosy hugs or kisses (air hugs and kisses). These are anti-contact and foster more anti-social, anti-contact behavior. Of course, some people may prefer these, and that is okay, but a school or organization should not force others. It’s just strange that in an era where so many pushed for tolerance and understanding, we instead have become so intolerant of the differences between us. Intolerance is an antisocial trait, and so is shooting up a school.

The Need for Human Interaction in the Real World

During my summer run, there was a young girl riding that first sat in the back of the bus. She’d come get on, and I would say hi to her, but she did not respond at first. She started to greet me in the third week. I even began to get eye contact and a smile from her. Just before the last day of school, she stopped before getting of the bus and said, “You know tomorrow is my last day.” I said, “Well, maybe you will do summer school next year.” She smiled at me and said, “Maybe, bye.” The next day, the last day, when she went to get off the bus, she came to me, opened her arms, and hugged me.

This is true with most kids and teens today. They do not respond when you say hi or bye to them. Then again, many of them were taught as kids not say hi to strangers which was always foolish. Kids don’t learn to socialize by being told to be antisocial. Family cannot be kids’ only place for appropriate intimate contact. As we grow, we spend less and less time with family and need to navigate the world with all of its dangers and possibilities.

Every week, this girl would move closer and closer to me until she was seated right behind me. I was able to build trust with her and she felt safe enough to initiate appropriate contact with me. I simply returned that affection in an appropriate manner.

County (school) policy would say I should stop her and do a fist bump. That is offensive. I will do no such thing because I know what harm that will do to her socially. If she went to fist-bump me, I would fist-bump her back, but that is not what she wanted. That is a rejection of her affection, of her. But the county is concerned about liability, not child safety. I have two cameras on me and audio. These run on the bus continuously. Her mom was recording the hug, and I had a bus aide on the bus as a witness. This is not an issue of safety. The County is focused on money, so many kids’ and teens’ mental health is being compromised.

Some students don’t want touch. We must support that, but those who initiate it need to be accepted as well. This is why their initiating is so important. This may encourage others to foster more intimate but appropriate relationships with people across age spectrums and with each other. Such relationships can do a lot more good than harm.

The situation with the girl on my bus was a wonderful moment that showed how a school bus driver worked with a child over five weeks to build a level of appropriate love and intimacy so that both of us were left with a positive experience that emphasized the value of each of us as human beings. It did not matter how much money I made. And I was not so obsessed with liability that I rejected her and caused her harm. What mattered was that I built a child’s trust and did not take advantage of her.

Of course, I see plenty of teachers hug kids who don’t follow policy, but they are almost always women, and I wonder if it would help to show that adult men are not always predators preying on kids. We, too, can be affectionate with kids and help build a personal and intimate connection with them while still being appropriate, allowing them freedom and the ability to initiate what feels comfortable to them. That is where our focus should be in educating them.

As a therapist, one with extensive training in child sexual abuse and exploitation, counties’ and schools’ fear of liability is compromising kids’ and teens’ ability to be social and experience intimacy, eventually in all its forms, even sexual as they grow older.

It’s don’t talk. Don’t touch. Don’t do this. Don’t do that, and don’t dress this way or that way, but very seldom do we teach them about the need to have relationships with their peers. They also need relationships with those across all age spectrums. Creating and fostering such a community helps young people build and maintain critical support systems even outside their family unit. That is critical for stable mental health and day-to-day human functioning.

If kids and teens are taught what’s appropriate intimacy, they then have the power and initiative to protect themselves without having their social development compromised in the process. Yes, we can be too safe. Such leads to social anxiety, depression, self-harm, and ultimately suicide in young people. A hug goes a long way.

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