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Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Hazing among High School Athletes

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Hazing incidents among high school athletes have been increasingly common in recent years. Unfortunately, students and the broader community sometimes view hazing rituals as part of a tradition or naive school pranks. However, these dangerous behaviors can lead to serious injuries, and in some cases, death. Hank Nuwer details some of the earliest accounts of a hazing deaths in the United States which includes Edward Turnbach who became a victim on September 19, 1885 at A Hazelton, a high school in Pennsylvania.

Most recently, the Washington Post, reported an alleged incident involving several Ooltewah High School basketball team members in Tennessee.

There he found a 15-year-old freshman player covered in blood, urine and feces, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston told ESPN. Two sophomore players were holding the boy down, while a third teammate, a senior, shoved a pool cue up his rectum. The freshman was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to repair his bladder and colon, which had been ruptured by the cue. The three alleged assailants were arrested and charged with aggravated rape. Read More

In light of current trends, professionals, survivors, students and athletic officials recognize the urgency of this social justice issue. Let’s look at how is hazing defined.

Michelle Chaney, M.D., MScPH from The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at the Massachusetts General Hospital, defines hazing as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” In an article for the

Aside from the emotional and physical trauma sustained by the survivors of these occurrences, the statistics on hazing in high school athletics are equally compelling. One major academic study regarding high school athletic hazing is the Alfred University study (Hoover & Pollard, 2000). The results validate the prevalence of hazing in high school athletics and other student groups. In August of 2000, Alfred University conducted a research study titled, “Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey”. Using data from 1,541 respondents, results indicated the following:

  • 48 percent of high school students who belonged to groups conveyed being subjected to hazing activities.
  • 71 percent of the students subjected to hazing indicated negative outcomes, such as physical altercations, injuries, conflicts with parents, low academic performance, bullying, decreased appetite, insomnia, difficulty concentrating or emotional issues.
  • 36 percent of the students stated that they did not feel comfortable reporting hazing mainly because “There’s no one to tell,” or “Adults won’t handle it right.”
  • Only 14 percent replied they were actually hazed, but 48 percent mentioned they took part in behaviors associated with hazing. And 29 percent admitted they participated in possible illegal activities in order to belong to a group.
  • Regarding males, 48 percent were exposed to degrading hazing behaviors. 24 percent said they abused substances and 27 percent were involved in risky hazing behaviors.
  • Females were found to be regularly involved in various types of hazing at extreme levels: degrading hazing, 39 percent; substance abuse, 18 percent; and risky hazing, 17 percent.

These numbers highlight the frequency and range of severity of hazing incidents among high school students. They also give insight into the hazing culture. It also explains that some students are hesitant to speak up because they feel powerless or they lack confidence in the adults around them.

Many factors contribute to the cultural climate of hazing such as a belief that hazing practices are normal, incident under reporting, victim blaming and perpetrators sometimes receive modest sentences or no penalties whatsoever. According to the article “Bullying and Hazing in Youth Sports”, the author states that hazing is frequently exculpated as, “kids being kids”. Given that hazing rituals have existed since the 1600s, Psychologist Susan Lipkins argues that a substantial change in the world view of hazing would need to occur in order to increase personal and organizational accountability. Lipkins is the author of the book“Preventing Hazing,” which is a great comprehensive resource for anyone impacted by or concerned about this issue.

As a community, there are numerous ways to address hazing among high school students and athletes. The following are suggestions for national, state and local level involvement.

For prevention strategies to work, the National Federation of State High School Associations has:

  1. Created domestic policies around anti-hazing efforts.
  2. Designated a representative to generate a dialogue with athletic officials, parents and students about hazing and prevention.
  3. Created a website, (http://hazingprevention.org/) headed by Kim Novak, that provides like-minded professionals with training to impact the cultural climate around hazing. Organizational best practices recommend that schools take direct measures through anti-hazing task forces and organizational restructuring if necessary.

What can sports programs do?

Sports programs can develop team building activities to foster unity in addition to mentoring programs with upperclassmen, who assist their younger peers to reduce hazing incidents.

Nancy Rappaport, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, advocates high school administrators to do the following steps:

  1. Concurrence on what behaviors constitute hazing.
  2. Effective procedure application for addressing hazing incidents with clear outcomes.
  3. Guideline review with faculty, staff and students to promote awareness and incident reporting.
  4. Continuous policy analysis will decrease hazing incidents.

Michelle Chaney emphasizes that parents can help by:

  1. Informing their children about the risks of hazing.
  2. Urging teens to investigate the backgrounds of organizations before joining.
  3. Motivating teens to diversify friendships beyond extra-curricular activities.
  4. Encouraging teens to inform their peers their state’s anti-hazing laws. A great start to their research could be http://www.stophazing.org/laws/states-with-anti-hazing-laws/

Another opportunity to stay proactive is to participate in social justice activities. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM)  and in September is National Hazing Prevention Week, which is launched by HazingPrevention.org. Community involvement in anti-hazing activities increases awareness and continues the conversation throughout the year.

In many cases, the alleged actions of the accused are not viewed as rape, sodomy or sexual assault by school administrators or the community at large. Erin Buzuvis, Professor of Law at Western New England University, writes about one case, Doe vs. Rutherford County, Tennessee, Board of Education, 2014, the school district believed that the alleged actions of the accused student athletes (“non-consensual anal penetration”) were not sexual in nature. Buzuvis elaborates that, according to Title IX, the court decided the event met the requirements for formal accountability.

Three main findings were presented by the court. First, the court established that the alleged actions were interpreted “as a sexual act that is a severe violation of an individual’s body and personal privacy.” Second, the court decided satisfactory proof had been presented to infer that school personnel were aware of the alleged activities.  Lastly, the court discovered adequate indication of conscious apathy by school officials involving a breach of procedure. Dr. Edward F. Dragan adds that if a Title IX allegation is submitted involving hazing and sexual harassment, litigant and offender representatives must investigate the nature of the behavior, how many participated and the level of mental trauma endured. Also, Dragan shares that a determination must be made as to whether or not school officials followed protocol in the case. Title IX has an important task in the legal aspects of hazing situations.

One valuable asset not shown in any of these cases is school social workers. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), school social workers comprise 5 percent of the roughly 500,000 social workers in the United States. Furthermore, the NASW notes that critical thinking skills equip school social workers to develop and implement interventions such as violence and suicide prevention programs. Also, the NASW expresses school social workers utilize an array of theories and resources to provide students and community members with trauma, informed, care promoting restoration after a crisis. It is uncertain if their absence in these cases were due to a lack of awareness or another unknown factor.

By recognizing the long-standing tradition of hazing in our high school programs and implementing prevention policies across the board, we can eliminate future cases. Through increasing awareness and community outreach, we can empower survivors and teach youth the positive aspects of extra-curricular activities (i.e. fun, friendship and critical thinking skills). Acknowledging the problem, supporting youth and their families and encouraging accountability can transform hazing ethos and promote healing.

Written by Tiffany Thompson

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Tiffany Thompson has an MSW from Spalding University, Louisville. She has strong interests in education, social justice, children and youth, specifically in foster care. Fond of volunteering, she is an educational support tutor for the Every One Reads program.

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