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VHS crafts new rules for school dances

After weeks of discussion with student leaders, Vashon High School Principal Susan Hanson on Monday issued new rules for school-sponsored dances, including a requirement that dance partners leave at least three fingers of space between each other.

The rules also call for a “visible distance” between couples on the dance floor in an effort to end the “mosh pit” phenomenon, where students congregate into a tight mass. And those who violate the rules, according to the new policy, will get one warning; a second violation will lead to their expulsion from the dance and ineligibility to attend the high school’s next dance.

The new rules, crafted by Hanson and eight VHS students, were created after parents raised concerns last fall about “grinding” or “freak” dancing, where partners dance front to back, usually with the boy’s groin up against his partner’s bottom.

Parents said the dance style, a national trend, violates Vashon Island School District’s policy banning sexually explicit dancing at school-sponsored events. They also raised concerns about students who felt pressured to engage in grinding, sexual harassment that could stem from the dance style and the potential for the district to get sued for creating a climate that allowed harassment.

Hanson said she’s pleased with the result of the work she and the high school students undertook.

“I think it is a very thoughtful and respectful reaction to a very real concern,” Hanson said.

Students, she added, “have been part of the solution, which is as it should be.”

Shelby Gale, a senior and one of the students who helped to craft the new rules, said she felt they came out “surprisingly well.” Gale, who wrote an editorial in the VHS student newspaper taking issue with parents’ objections to grinding, said she wished “there hadn’t been any controversy in the first place.”

But she believes many of the students who were initially angry about the parental involvement will be able to live with the new policies.

“I know some will choose not to go to dances. ... I think it’s an adjustment, that’s for sure. But I think it’s something the majority of the people can work around and handle,” she said.

Hanson said she planned to meet with each of the classes on Tuesday to discuss the new rules and will send a letter to parents later this week updating them on the situation.

But Marcy Summers, a parent who played a lead role in organizing meetings about the controversial dance style, said she’s frustrated that parents were not included in the discussions that led to the new set of rules. As of Monday morning, she had not seen them yet.

Summers and other parents — some of whom chaperoned the homecoming dance in October and were troubled by what they saw — began meeting in the fall to discuss the dances. They also met with Hanson and Vashon school superintendent Michael Soltman and organized a community-wide meeting in November, where Soltman announced that grinding would end at VHS.

Parents and administrators decided grinding had to end, Summers said, because of its blatant violation of the school district’s policies. But she said she believed that students, parents and other community members would then engage in discussions about what a post-grinding dance culture would look like — something that hasn’t happened.

“The rules are a product of a process that’s still badly flawed,” she said.

Summers added that she’s concerned that the failure to have a shared dialogue could mean that the rules won’t stick. Past parent groups, she noted, have tried to put an end to grinding, only to have rules created that weren’t implemented.

“In talking to students, I don’t think they really understand what parents’ concerns are around this and why we felt this was necessary and what the issues are,” she added. “As a result, I will be surprised if their discussions ... are going to be able to yield a product that really solves this problem.”

But Soltman said enforcement of the rules will now be a top priority for the administration.

“What we had to do is develop some clear guidelines that were enforceable and easily communicated,” he said. “Our duty now is implementation and consistent enforcement.”

What’s more, he said, the kind of dialogue Summers and others have called for can still happen. In fact, Soltman said, he now regrets that he announced an end to grinding at the November meeting before initiating a fuller discussion with VHS students about why parents and administrators were concerned about the dance form.

“I regret that we were so strident early on, ... before we engaged the kids. I think we made a mistake there,” he said. “Nevertheless, I still think we need to set the standards and rules and not allow grinding for all the reasons I’ve stated before.”

Soltman said that at the November meeting, parent leaders asked the high school to take on the issue and craft a new set of guidelines. What’s more, he said, the letters and opinion pieces that began appearing in The Beachcomber after that meeting made it clear that the community was not in consensus about grinding, suggesting to him that it was up to school district administrators to figure out how new rules would be established.

“There’s really no intent to close any parent group out,” he said. Noting the existence of the long-standing Youth-Adult Dialogues, he added, “I think that opportunity still exists, and I think it may be a more positive conversation now than it would have been” earlier in the process.

Some students, however, say the new rules are a disappointment and the result of over-reaction on the part of parents. Eli Hoyt, a senior who crafted a survey in November to try to measure student support for the dance form, said he believes the parent group forced the district’s hand by bringing up the possibility of lawsuits.

The new rules, he said, represent “the best possible solution, given the circumstances. ... But for the majority of students who are pro-grinding, it was a lose-lose.”

Summers, however, said she believed the administrators as well as Vashon taxpayers needed to understand the school district’s legal exposure on the issue. School districts across the country, she added, are grappling with grinding, in part because of the problems Vashon parents also identified and brought forward.

Because she hadn’t seen the new rules Hanson and the students came up with, Summers added that she couldn’t determine if this chapter is finally closed.

But, she added, “If we see the new rules and the rules look great, well, wonderful —­ we’re done.”

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