By guest blogger Gina Cairney
Teasing, being shoved into lockers, and playing pranks may all be part of a freshman initiation ritual in school sports, but an investigation by Bloomberg suggests that these instances of bullying and hazing are tame compared with recent trends in more humiliating and even violent hazing rituals among middle and high school athletes.
At a wrestling tournament in Denver in February 2012, a 13-year-old boy was cornered on an empty bus, bound with duct tape, then sodomized with a pencil by three upperclassmen, but according to Bloomberg, this wasn’t the end for the victim and his family in the small town of Norwood, Colo.
Two of the attackers were sons of Robert Harris, the wrestling coach and president of the school board. And the victim? Well, he was the school principal’s son. (Bloomberg doesn’t identify victims of sexual assault.)
If you follow sports culture, and its propensity for hypermasculinity, you can probably already see how this unfolds.
Not unlike the incident in Steubenville, Ohio (and other places for that matter), where the small town blamed the female victim for sullying her attackers’ character and future collegiate athletic careers, the 13-year-old Colorado victim and his father were also called liars and snitches and were repeatedly harassed by community members and school peers.
Little punishment was meted out by the school against the attackers, who served only a one-day, in-school suspension. The Denver district’s attorney brought charges against the three students, and later that year, they pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and received varied sentences including probation, community service, and restitution of about $2,500 apiece, reported Bloomberg.
The victim and his family also left Norwood.
In Illinois, an anti-hazing bill proposed by state Rep. Marty Moylan awaits Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature, after passing the House and Senate, according to the Daily Herald. The bill would criminalize the “failure to report hazing,” and only applies to school officials, including teachers, coaches, social workers, and teacher’s assistants.
The bill was in response to separate hazing scandals in the state, including one at Maine West High School, where two 14-year-old soccer players said they were sexually assaulted as part of a hazing ritual.
More Widespread Than People Realize
A review of court documents and news accounts by Bloomberg revealed that 40 high school boys have been sodomized with foreign objects—like a broken flag pole, metal concrete-reinforcing bar, and a water bottle—by teammates in more than a dozen alleged incidents reported in just the past year. Ten years ago, there were only three reported incidents, according to Bloomberg.
In an April 2011 letter, the U.S. Department of Education wrote to educators, that during the 2007-08 school year, there were 800 reported incidents of rape or attempted rape and about 4,000 reported incidents of other sexual batteries at public high schools.
Although the letter didn’t warn about hazing, it offered educators some guidance on how to address bullying, even cautioning them that schools can be held liable for tolerating or ignoring such incidents.
Research is limited on boy-on-boy sexual hazing, but a 2009 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that almost 10 percent of high school males reported being victims of rape or other forms of sexual assault by their peers.
The National Incident Reporting System, which provides data on sexual assault reported to law-enforcement agencies, suggests that sexual assault is most prevalent among adolescents in contrast to any other age group, with 33 percent of victims being between the ages of 13 and 17.
However, it’s important to note that reported numbers may not reflect actual incidents of sexual assault. Researchers say that since only about half of adolescent victims tell anyone, and only 6 percent tell authorities about their assault, reported numbers may be a gross underestimate of the real number of victims.
Experts like Susan Lipkins, a psychologist at Port Washington, N.Y., told Bloomberg that hazing in schools often fuels hazing in colleges, as a new generation of athletes in middle and high school sports learn ways to haze fellow team members through social media and other Internet sources.
These types of hazing rituals have been increasing in frequency, she said, becoming more brutal and sexually violent.
So why is this form of violence increasing in our public schools?
There’s no definitive answer, but experts suggest it has something to do with how culture perpetuates a certain type of masculinity.
High schools boys prove their masculinity to each other by humiliating other, often younger and weaker boys, William Pollack, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, told Bloomberg, because they think that’s what “being a man” is all about.
Susan Stuart, a law professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, echoes a similar analysis in an article, writing that to the extent society grants cultural authority and leadership to public school sports, athletes are “the standards for a hegemonic masculinity,” and hazing is usually an “outgrowth of tradition,” rationally perceived as a rite of passage.
There seems to be a lot of awareness about sexual abuse, especially with the nationally highlighted Penn State case, “but there seems to be the sense ... that when incidents happen, it’s part of ‘boys being boys,’ or let’s take care of it internally,” said Jonathan Kaufman, Bloomberg’s managing editor, in a radio segment on Boston’s NPR news station, Here & Now.
What’s left is authority figures who “either turn a blind eye” or even encourage the act, he said.
“Kids will do things, but it’s really the role of adults to step in and to say stop, and to find out what is going on, and to fix it,” Kaufman said, imploring parents and authority figures not to turn a blind eye to these types of incidents.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.