Principals Crack Down on Harmful Student Behaviors
Leaders confront students' hazing, drinking, and sexual violence
When Brad Seamer became principal of the joint middle and high school in a small South Dakota town in 2008, his predecessor warned him about the hazing. It was best to just look the other way, Seamer remembers being told.
In Salem, a rural community on the east side of the state, there had been a long-standing tradition that many of the current students' parents had experienced: Around homecoming every year, seniors would take freshmen out into surrounding cornfields for an "initiation ceremony."
But as Seamer learned the details of the ritual—senior football players paddling lowerclassmen and dumping manure on their heads—he decided it had to stop.
He threatened to call police on students. He made football players sit out during games—no small punishment in Salem. He warned freshman students and their parents about the hazing they might encounter.
And despite strong pushback from some quarters—including parents who challenged his authority to punish students for their behavior outside of school—Seamer refused to back down.
"The kids that were participating in this—they never thought they were bad kids. …" said Seamer. "I just felt they had the wrong perspective, and it was my job to change their perspective."
Seamer never doubted that ending the hazing was his job. "It was affecting the freshmen's learning environment, and we went after it."
Seamer's experience strikes at a persistent issue facing school leaders. How much leverage can they—and should they—use to ward off damaging and dangerous student behavior, be it hazing, underaged drinking, bullying, or sexual assault that takes place outside school walls and school days? And what can school leaders do when they encounter pushback from parents, the community, or even from within their own ranks?
This is not a new challenge for principals and other school leaders. In 1990, Education Week published a story about headmasters of several Washington-area private schools imploring parents to stop allowing students to throw large, unsupervised parties where "excessive drinking and sexual license are common." But questions around what role principals and educators play in shaping student behavior, judgment, and character are increasingly front and center, amid the reach of social media and shifting cultural expectations driven by the #MeToo movement and, most recently, the controversial hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused decades later of sexual assault while in high school.
Three recent examples highlight the thorny, sometimes criminal behaviors that school leaders must confront:
Five teenagers in Damascus, Md., have been charged with second-degree rape for allegedly assaulting or attempting to assault four of their junior varsity football teammates with a broom in a locker room. Leaders in the Montgomery County, Md., school system said they are investigating whether the incident is part of a broader hazing culture at Damascus High School. Superintendent Jack Smith and two other senior district leaders sent a video message to all high school students condemning the acts and reminding students that those who harass, bully, or abuse others will be held accountable.
A video of high school students in Southlake, Texas, chanting the "N-word" quickly circulated on social media last month, according to local media. Although the racist incident occurred off-campus, district officials demanded that the video be taken down and said in a letter to parents and staff that students involved would be disciplined.
A principal in Maryland who sought to crack down on underage drinking at prom in 2016 barred students who were caught doing so from participating in commencement ceremonies, but the disciplinary measures were reversed by the interim superintendent, according to local media.
Oftentimes, though, principals can feel like they are in uncharted waters. Such was the case for Mary Pat Cumming, the principal at the FAIR School, an arts-magnet high school in Minneapolis.
A student, along with her mother, recently approached Cumming with a specific request. Could she, they asked, require students to take sexual-consent and -assault training?
Their case was compelling. Seventeen-year-old Isadora Colón told Cumming she had been sexually assaulted, and neither she nor her mother wanted another student to go through the confusion and helplessness they had felt as they tried to figure out what to do after the assault. And should the worst happen, Isadora and her mother, Natalie Hart, wanted families to know what to do.
Isadora was moved to talk to Cumming as she listened to student chatter taking place at the height of the hearings for Kavanaugh. What she heard students saying about the accusations against Kavanaugh was alarming. She was worried that her peers saw youth as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card.
"Students were saying, 'oh, he was just young, he didn't know what he was doing,' or kind of making the perpetrator the victim in the story," she said. "And I think that in itself was a clear sign that there needs to be some sort of program, teaching about how it's not just the fact that the perpetrator is young and naïve, it's that the perpetrator isn't aware of consent, doesn't know about it."
Cumming agreed right away to take on Isadora's request. But after surveying her fellow principals in the district, she realized no one was tackling the issue with a comprehensive curriculum. She's building her own, with input from Isadora and her mother and with experts from community groups who'll talk with students about consent throughout the upcoming semester.
All students are taking part, Cumming said, and parents, too, will be brought into the discussions.
The program will also focus on perpetrators of sexual assault, at Isadora's request, and how they and their families should handle coming to terms with their actions.
The hope, Isadora said, is that if other families find themselves in the same position, they won't feel as lost as she and her mother did.
"Before my experience, I'd never ever in my life heard before, 'If you are assaulted, the first step you should take is 'blank,' " said Isadora. "I had never heard anyone tell me ... what I should do in that situation."
Her mother said this is the time to make the greatest impact.
"The more we do talk about it ... we can change the conversation," said Hart. "Reaching people when they're young, when they're hitting puberty ... that's the golden opportunity."
Schools vs. Parents
About 9 percent of young people ages 14 to 21 have committed some type of sexual violence, be it attempted rape, rape, or sexual coercion, according to a 2013 study by researchers from the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, Calif., and the University of New Hampshire.
Thirty percent of high school students drink some alcohol, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control's 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, and 14 percent binge drink.
And 22 percent of Americans experienced hazing during high school, according to a 2017 YouGov poll.
These behaviors—drinking, hazing, and sexual violence—often happen in varying combinations. And even when those behaviors occur completely outside of school, they often have a dramatic effect on students' learning.
Although there is a lot of focus on preventing hazing and sexual assault on college campuses, these behaviors usually start before then, said Michele Ybarra, the chief executive officer and research director of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research and one of the co-authors of the study on sexual violence.
"Our research does support this idea that sexual violence does seem to be emerging in high school, and we need to be talking to our teenagers and we need to be talking to them before they start having sex," Ybarra said. "We need to talk about consent before that."
A range of factors can contribute to a student's behavior, said Ybarra, such as seeing spousal abuse in the home, watching violent pornography, being a victim of sexual violence, and drinking alcohol.
She said educators can play an important role in helping teenagers make healthy choices outside of school.
But it's not entirely up to schools. Parents have the most critical influence, said Caitlin Abar, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Brockport, who studies parental influence on young adults' substance abuse.
"Perhaps contrary to popular belief, while peers are an important element, in the vast majority of healthy adolescents, parents maintain an important role in their lives," she said. "While adolescents may seek peers on social processes, they're still checking in with their parents on the big issues."
Sometimes, principals have to contend with parents aiding and abetting teenage drinking, as was the case in a Bethesda, Md., high school in the fall semester of 2016. Three local teenagers had died in alcohol-related car accidents in the past two years. After learning of students drinking at parties while the parents were home, the school's principal emailed all parents, imploring them not to allow students to drink or provide them with alcohol. The principal warned that not only are there hefty fines for adults who allow underage drinking to take place in their homes, there is also the risk that teenagers will get into a bad accident.
Abar said the notion that allowing adolescents to drink under parental supervision helps demystify drinking and teaches young adults their limits, is a myth. Sometimes called the "European model," Abar said young European adults have higher rates of substance abuse.
"Alcohol, drugs, they're not friendly to brain cells," she said. "We know that the earlier that you are exposed, the more likely you are to be addicted."
At J.W. Mitchell High School in Pasco County, Fla., Principal Jessica Schultz is attacking underage drinking by focusing on educating parents.
Schultz realized that some students in her school had a drinking problem during the 2017 prom, when 50 of them were involved in a situation related to alcohol. Seventeen prom-goers were formally disciplined.
Students had been drinking at homecoming, football games, even in the classroom, but, for Schultz, the prom was the breaking point.
"I'm tired of seeing this. It's heartbreaking to watch a kid be passed out because they drank too much and be sitting at your school, in your dance arena," Schultz said. "That is not what I want as a high school principal. That is the last thing I want."
The next year, J.W. Mitchell High partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to target not the students, but their parents.
Now, if a student wants to attend a school dance, his or her parent must attend a 45-minute workshop led by MADD to discuss the dangers of alcohol and drug use. Parents who cannot attend in person have the option to take part in an online seminar, which times out if the parent does not actively engage with it.
More than 75 percent of students' parents have participated in the workshops, Schultz said. Since implementation, no students were disciplined during the 2017 homecoming dance, and only four students were disciplined during the prom last spring.
Karyn Smith's daughter attended the 2017 prom, and her son is currently in 11th grade. Although her children were never disciplined for drinking, Smith remembers waging bets with her family as to how many students would get in trouble for alcohol use. This past year, no one was able to guess how low the numbers would be.
"It was a great sounding board, and, because it was a requirement from the school, my kids didn't see it as me being heavy-handed," Smith said.
According to MADD, 3 out of 4 teenagers say their parents are the leading influence on their decisions about drinking. By targeting parents, the program hopes that these conversations trickle down to the students and throughout the community.
"A lot of times, when it comes to alcohol, parents don't really understand the dangers because the laws around alcohol have changed," said Kim Morris, MADD's national senior director of programs. "There's a big mismatch between the experience of today's parents and the research of today."
Schultz said that she received some backlash from parents, many of whom saw the workshops as the school telling them how to parent. She remembers reading Facebook comments calling her a prude and driving home from work in tears.
"I know I stuck my neck out, but I will say, if I ever went to another school, I'd do it again," Schultz said. "If one kid benefits from it, then I've done my job."
Vol. 38, Issue 13, Pages 1, 12-13Published in Print: November 14, 2018, as Principals Crack Down on Harmful Acts