'Tag' a touchy issue at Mercer Island schools

September 27, 2015 | by Erin Sirianni

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“What? Tag is banned?”  ~ 
The question that echoed around Mercer Island last week.

The Mercer Island School District recently made local, national, and international news, though not in our usual way with high-performing students or athletes.

Instead we made news with what was certainly a well-meaning though now widely questioned “hands-off” policy for kids’ unstructured play at recess – effectively banning the beloved game of ‘tag’ from school grounds.

The policy has now been retracted, announced through an email sent last Friday morning by school district Superintendent Gary Plano to parents stating:

“The ‘hands-off’ policy intended for unstructured play and recess however well intended, has led to confusion, false reporting and clearly not supported by many staff and many parents. Although the plan was focused on keeping students safe, it lacked stakeholder participation and support … Tag as we know it and have known it is reinstated.”

The whirlwind of media attention and passionate discussion in the community began with Lakeridge mom Melissa Neher starting a Facebook group, “STAR MI,” an acronym for “Support Tag at Recess in Mercer Island.” The group gained over 400 members within a week.

Neher and Kelsey Joyce, who also has a child at Lakeridge elementary, were interviewed by local news channel Q13 Fox, which was the first local news story that has now expanded to national and international news coverage:

Just for laughs

Just for laughs

Q13 Fox“School district bans game of tag to ‘ensure physical, emotional safety of students’”
KUOW.org“Not ‘It’: Mercer Island Schools Ban Traditional Tag on Playgrounds”
PlayItSafe Sports (Islander Hilary Benson) – “Don’t touch tag!”
Yahoo News – “Did this school go too far by discouraging games of tag?”
Washington Post“Guess why this school district wants to get rid of the game of ‘tag’”
Express (UK newspaper and website) – “Council bans kids from playing tag at school in case it harms their ’emotional safety'”
And don’t miss this lively Reddit discussion, “Mercer Island’s delicate flowers too precious for … tag.”

Earlier this week I asked my boys about the new rules on the playground and my son said that his favorite games “two-hand touch” football had been changed to flag football.

“I think it’s worse, Mom,” he said. “The kids only look at the flag and don’t pay attention to where they are going. Someone elbowed my friend in the head, and he had to go to the nurse’s office.”

I recounted my conversation with my friend Denise Thomas, also a Lakeridge parent, over coffee the next day. We both found the policy exasperating. If tag was now seen as a threat on the playground, what about slides, the monkey bars, and climbing walls, which are documented to contribute to thousands of nation-wide injuries a year?

“Childhood is inherently dangerous,” Thomas said.

Thankfully, tag is back, and we’ve all enjoyed a healthy conversation around childhood play and the limits of our protective measurements and involvement on all levels.  In a response to the district’s decision today, Neher sent the following letter to Assistant Superintendent Fred Rundle (shared on the STAR MI Facebook page):

“Dear Fred,

Thank you for reaching out to me by phone early this morning. I understand, based on our conversation, that the ‘no touch’ policy is being abandoned. We all have the best interests of our children at heart, and I appreciate that you have been a receptive listener and that MISD has decided to drop the ‘no touch’ policy. I am very encouraged by your planned next steps, including developing a positive message in our schools so that staff and students can build a framework together for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in school, including recess. In honor of dropping the ‘no touch’ policy, please consider this a virtual ‘high-five’. I appreciate the empathy and hard work you bring to our school district.


Virtual high-fives, all around.