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East Lyme - The high school's plan to enforce a ban on "grinding" at school dances this year has sparked a debate well beyond the dance floor.
The Student Senate is discussing the issue after the school instated new consequences for "inappropriate" dancing. Some students reacted by boycotting the homecoming dance in October, and earlier this month, the school newspaper published an editorial on the topic that created a "buzz" around school, according to newspaper adviser Jeff Beale.
While school rules don't specifically define "inappropriate" dancing, Principal Michael Susi has spoken to students about appropriate behavior on the dance floor. The one concrete example he gave was that dancing partners should be facing each other.
When two people "grind," they dance facing in the same direction, their bodies in contact.
Susi said he encouraged students to consider that their dancing style might be inappropriate if they are questioning it in their own minds, or if they wouldn't dance that way in front of their parents at a wedding.
If found to be dancing inappropriately, students may be asked to leave and the school may contact their parents, according to a letter sent to parents and teachers at the start of the school year.
Students who are told to leave "risk the possibility that they may not participate in upcoming events as well," according to the letter.
Susi discussed the issue last year and stepped up enforcement this year in response to concerns from parents, students and teachers. Some teachers were uncomfortable chaperoning the dances, he said.
With the new rules in effect, attendance at October's homecoming dance dropped. About 300 students attended, when usually 600 show up, Susi said.
He said he didn't have to speak to a single student there about inappropriate dancing and received positive feedback from chaperones.
The student voice
The student newspaper, The Viking Saga, published an editorial earlier this month opposing the policy. The student writers said the school should allow the dance style but prohibit a more provocative version of the dance.
The newspaper published a dozen arguments signed by different staff editors, including assertions that the style of dancing is a "generational fad" and a form of "self-expression." The writers lamented that fewer students attending school dances would mean lost revenue for student causes. The homecoming dance, for example, was to raise money for the Student Senate.
The editorial was to "express what the student body believes," which editor-in-chief Benjamin Ostrowski said is the student newspaper's role.
Beale, the newspaper advisor, said the newspaper staff wanted to represent the student body and treat the sensitive issue seriously.
"The big thing I want the kids to take from this is they have the power to make change, and change doesn't happen overnight," he said.
In preparing to write the editorial, students researched legal rights and past court cases involving student journalists and freedom of speech.
The paper's next edition, published on Nov. 20, featured a student's letter to the editor asserting that hosting an unmonitored dance outside of school, as some students have suggested, would pose more of a safety hazard than grinding. The same edition included a guest editorial by math teacher Lauren Brake challenging the earlier student editorial's claims.
The newspaper staff was thrilled that a teacher submitted an editorial, even though it challenged the students' arguments, said Kaley Roberts, one of the editors-in-chief.
"We're 100 percent for good journalism and getting the school involved with the newspaper," she said.
The newspaper received three letters to the editor within a day - the most it has ever received in that period of time, Ostrowski said. He said he thought the dancing issue struck a nerve because students didn't feel they had much of a voice in the matter.
But Susi said that when he tried to engage the students on the subject last year, he received little response. He spoke to the Student Senate, was interviewed by the newspaper, and appeared on the school's morning show.
Recently, Susi met with The Saga's two editors-in-chief. He said he will have further discussions once the Student Senate identifies potential solutions. He said he's not trying to stop dances but wants to address the "climate and culture."
"There's value in the process of students taking ownership of an issue and working to resolve it," he said.
The Student Senate plans to speak with both students and faculty and eventually to present its findings to the principal, Student Senate President Dan Gage said.
"Our goal is to find a solution that will satisfy both sides," he said.
Differing opinions on appropriate student behavior at school dances is not unique to East Lyme. Last month, the Middletown, R.I., High School ended a dance early after students were seen grinding, which the high school had prohibited, wpri.com reported.
Other schools in southeastern Connecticut treat the subject of behavior at dances in a general manner; school district websites cite inappropriate conduct in general as a reason for discipline.
According to the East Lyme High School student newspaper's controversial editorial on the ban of grinding at school dances, there are two forms of this dance style:
“Grinding: When two bodies, facing the same direction, move back and forth while embracing. In a normal grind, the body in front is not bent forward at more than a 45-degree angle.
"Dirty grinding: When two bodies, facing the same direction, seem to simulate sexual movement in an obscene manner forward at more than a 45-degree angle or touching in an obscene manner because the body in front is bent forward the ground.
"What we're asking: That the ban on grinding be lifted. Because grinding, not dirty grinding, is the style of dance that is most popular with the student body. We suggest a ban on dirty grinding only."
To read the full editorial, visit http://my.hsj.org/Schools/Newspaper/tabid/100/view/frontpage/schoolid/2389/articleid/552897/newspaperid/2375/The_Grinding_Policy.aspx