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Dance contract prohibits suggestive moves at Century High homecoming

Century High School Principal Troy Barnes concedes that he doesn't see a lot of "Michael Jackson-style crotch grabbing" at student dances anymore. But he does see other suggestive dance moves, including the popular "twerking."

That prompted him to take the unusual step of requiring that students who want to attend the Carroll County school's homecoming dance on Saturday sign a "contract" that prohibits them from inappropriate dancing at school-sponsored events.

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"Front-to-back dancing with young women bending over putting their hands on the floor or on their knees, we think is unacceptable," said Barnes, in his first year on the job. More specifically, he added, a female student should not bend more than 45 degrees or have her hands on her knees while grinding with another student.

While schools for years have tried to keep it clean on the dance floor, some are ratcheting up those efforts with student contracts to include written agreements. Others are seeking more formalized policies. In Howard County, for example, a movement has begun to institute a countywide ban on "grinding" on the dance floor at school events.

The result of stricter rules at Century High: Some students are opting to walk instead of dance. Ticket sales are down this year at the school with a student body of 1,100 — 200 fewer tickets have been purchased compared with last year.

Matthew Saxton, student representative on the Carroll County Board of Education, defended Century High students, saying functions are "cleaner" there than at other schools.

"After homecoming is over, you hear stories about what happened at other high schools," said Saxton, who attends Century. "There are not many outliers at Century who engage in inappropriate dancing."

Howard County's David A. Bruzga, administrative director of high schools, said he plans to discuss the anti-grinding petition — which has garnered nearly 300 signatures on change.org — with administrators at the central office.

Each school makes its own decision about such rules, and about half have "written expectations" for dance conduct, he said. But he said a countywide policy isn't "out of the question." He said, "If the principals feel collectively that that would be something that would be helpful to them, then we would consider it."

"When you get a gym full of 700 or 800 kids, it's almost impossible to monitor every particular kid," he said. "But under no circumstances do we allow lewd dancing or grinding."

Anne Arundel County schools spokesman Bob Mosier said each school sets its own policies and many of the district's high schools have written agreements. Annapolis High, for example, required students last year to sign a contract that prohibited "sexually explicit dancing" such as grinding, intimate touching and prolonged public displays of affection.

"Those are school-by-school decisions," Mosier said. "Principals know their communities, know their schools."

Other districts rely on guidelines that are articulated in a more informal way.

Harford County schools spokeswoman Jillian V. Lader said in an email: "Sometimes staff members speak directly to individuals when it occurs, or expectations can be outlined in individual school handbooks. Other schools have addressed the student body directly."

Century parents received an email Oct. 9 from Barnes informing them that before students can purchase tickets to the homecoming dance, they must return the dance contract signed by themselves and their parents.

Sue Pluta, president of Century's Parent-Teacher-Student Organization, said parents have had mixed reactions to the dance contract.

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While Pluta is in favor of the contract because it has spurred discussion about appropriate dancing and could lead to more parent involvement, she said many parents think the contract is an overly heavy-handed approach or that the dancing isn't really a problem.

"What this letter has done in a very positive way is open the discussion. I bet a lot of parents turned to their kids and said: 'What do you see at the dances?'" she said. "Although the community response has been probably kind of negative about that contract that came out, I think the end result will be good because it's opened a dialogue."

Pluta's daughter, Caitie, is a junior at Century and her son, Matt, graduated last year. Caitie thinks the contract is "kind of dumb" but didn't have a big issue with it, she said.

When Barnes first started talking to parents and students about the school's culture, he said many raised the issue of lewd or sexually explicit dancing. Before handing out contracts, he met with Century juniors and seniors to discuss what constitutes appropriate dance moves.

"The last thing I want is an adversarial relationship with students," Barnes said. "We are not looking to be adversarial, but we have an obligation to maintain the standard that is in line with the community standard."

In discussing specific perimeters for female students, he emphasized that boys also would be disciplined for dancing inappropriately. "I don't see a lot of Michael Jackson-style crotch grabbing anymore — it doesn't seem to be en vogue — but if a male student is dancing sexually suggestive it will apply for them, too," Barnes said.

Many Carroll County high schools put together dance guidelines last year on what is considered appropriate dancing, said Thomas Hill, director of high schools. "We want the dances to be positive events for kids and ensure everyone is on the same page," Hill said.

The guidelines are imposed differently at each school. Some schools simply pass out dancing guidelines, others use a verbal warning system and others use a bracelet system, Hill said.

Under the bracelet system, each student receives a bracelet when they get to the homecoming dance. If they are caught dancing inappropriately, an administrator takes the bracelet. If there is a second offense, the student is asked to leave the dance.

Most schools, including Century, first give students a warning. In some cases, a student could be barred from all school dances.

"If [the student] becomes disrespectful and argumentative, then there will be more consequences and other jeopardies like not being able to attend prom," Hill said. "I don't believe most of my parents know or have seen what some of the students are engaging in."

Inappropriate dancing at Century's homecoming was the worst last year when there was limited adult supervision, according to Student Government Association President Jessica Hatmaker. But even with the restrictions, she said students are excited about homecoming.

Century's Student Government Association program coordinator, junior Corrisa Malat, said students who are boycotting the dance because of the contract are "blowing it out of proportion." However, she is concerned about how the contract will be enforced by administrators during the dance.

"There's never been rules before. ... How strict will they be and how closely will they be watching?" Malat asked.

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Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich, Pamela Wood and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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