Preventing hazing and cyberbullying

Recent hazing allegations put focus on prevention techniques

Criminal citations issued this week against six players and a volunteer coach at Philomath High School highlight how allegations of hazing and bullying continue to arise in Oregon and across the country. The criminal investigation stemmed from incidents reported at a July football camp at Camp Rilea in Warrenton.

Research shows that hazing occurs in all types of school districts and cuts across all social and economic groups. Consider this:

  • 1.5 million high school students are hazed each year
  • 10 percent of all college students admit to being hazed in high school
  • Over 70 percent of all NCAA athletes come to college with hazing experience

Sports teams and other organizations need to find a better way to welcome members, said Elliot Hopkins, director of sports sanctioning and student services for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). "Kids feel like they're paying their dues," said Hopkins. But, he said, no one should have to earn his or her place by being sexually assaulted.

Authorities in the field say there are a number of steps schools can take to prevent hazing:

  • Adopt strict anti-hazing rules and written policies
  • Make hazing awareness a part of coaches’ responsibilities and a part of the physical education curriculum
  • Provide information about the dangers of hazing, ranging from the loss of civility to the loss of life
  • Develop an anti-hazing contract for students and parents to sign
  • Require students to meet behavioral standards to continue participation
  • Develop alternative spirit-building or team-building activities that carry a positive message

At the college level, increased awareness and decreasing tolerance is helping to reduce the number of hazing incidents, says Emily Pualwan, executive director of HazingPrevention.Org. But she said high schools are just starting to deal with the problem. "More and more coaches and high school athletic directors are contacting us and saying, 'We need help in tackling this issue,’" she said.

Peter Weber, executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association, said OSAA isn't seeing a lot of hazing incidents. "I don't know if it's not happening or we're just not privy to it," he said. "Obviously any of it is more than needs to happen."

Forty-four states have laws against hazing, and many have laws reaching down to the middle school level. Penalties can range from misdemeanor to felony, depending on the state and the age of those involved. "We tell schools and parents and students 'You can't ignore this,’" Pualwan said. Her organization tells students that criminal charges can result that "could affect your career, your future, your ability to go to college."

Hazing comes in many forms, Pualwan said, but is generally defined as any humiliating or dangerous activity expected of a student to belong to a group, regardless of his or her willingness to participate. Some examples:

  • Activities meant to “earn” a place within an organization or team that seem inconsistent with someone’s character or values
  • Activities that are embarrassing or mentally/physically abusive
  • Forced or coerced abuse of alcohol
  • Personal servitude or meaningless tasks

Some students and parents view it as a rite of passage, which is part of the problem, said Pualwan. She said nine out of 10 students who have experienced hazing do not consider themselves to have been hazed. "That is one of the things that makes prevention difficult," she said. "As long as the practice is considered normal or ‘boys will be boys,’ it's a lot harder to institute change," she said.

Most districts, including Philomath, have policies prohibiting hazing, and are required to have policy on bullying and harassment. Philomath Superintendent Melissa Goff said this week that the district "will take appropriate actions toward coaching staff and students where justified and continue the healing process for affected students and their families."

Mandatory trainings will be conducted with every high school and middle school coach and advisor on district policies and expectations regarding the signs of abuse and prevention of bullying, harassment and hazing. In addition, the ABC House (an Albany child prevention center) will conduct child sexual abuse prevention training for all staff members on September 16.

The Philomath football team's first three games were canceled, which will definitely help bring about awareness of the problem of hazing, said Pualwan. "When you cancel Friday night lights, the community takes notice," she said.

Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson said hazing behavior merits serious legal consequences. "It ends now," he said.

In Florida, after a high-profile hazing incident, the state Legislature mandated that every incoming college freshman must have access to an online hazing prevention course. All 13 public universities in Florida adopted the online course that Pualwan's organization developed, and 35,000 students have taken it so far. A high school edition of the course is slated to come out later this fall. Information about the course is listed on the HazingPrevention.Org website.

Other activities, such as National Hazing Awareness Week, also help elevate understanding of the issue, said Pualwan. This year's event is September 19-23. Prevention of hazing is difficult, said Pualwan, because it takes systemic change to be effective. It starts with the family, but everyone from coaches to alumni and boosters to the students themselves must get on board.

OSAA's Weber said his organization reviews hazing prevention with coaches and administrators every year during their August workshops. OSAA also refers coaches to useful resources, such as the free online courses on hazing and other topics offered by Hopkins' organization (NFHS). "We just continue to try to educate our administrators and coaches around what is hazing," he said, "and alert them to the resources that are available." The most important thing schools can do to prevent hazing, said Hopkins, is to be intentional in prohibiting it and instilling consequences for offenders.

"You can't let it go unnoticed without someone saying the words: ‘We don't support hazing,’” he said. “You have to say the words."

For additional resources to help with prevention of hazing and cyberbullying, and other related issues, in addition to sample policies for hazing, harassment, etc., go here. See "Specific threats to student safety" and "Policy considerations"

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