Hazing Hits Home

After the shock of a hazing incident wears off, the hard work of rebuilding a better athletic program begins. Here’s a look at how one small-town high school is charting a new course.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.4, June/July 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1504/hazing.htm

Last fall, as football season was drawing to a close, Trumansburg (N.Y.) High School found its team making headlines. It wasn’t a run at a state title that was putting the Raiders on the front page, however. The stories were about junior varsity players being hazed by older teammates.

Descriptions of a player stuffed into a trash can and left by his peers and of older players urinating on younger players in locker-room showers left both parents and administrators in the close-knit town of 6,000 asking, “How could this happen here?”

With coaches contemplating resignations and parents demanding answers, administrators realized they had to make some big decisions very quickly. The first was whether to downplay the incident or confront it publicly. They chose the latter, and have not looked back since.

“I think the most important aspect of how the situation was handled was the fact that our athletic director, high school principal, and superintendent insisted that what had gone on was a serious issue, not just horseplay,” says Boys’ Soccer Coach Christopher Bond. “There were numerous athletes and parents downplaying the situation and saying, ‘Kids will be kids,’ but our administration insisted that we address the situation and get to the bottom of it.”

The school has drawn praise from the local media and community for tackling the issue in a way that delved deeper than the immediate situation. In this article, we’ll give you a look into how this school’s administration and coaching staff turned an ugly incident into an opportunity to redefine their school’s culture.

Hazing is defined as coercion into behavior that degrades or humiliates someone in order to join a group or be accepted. Whether or not it’s making the papers, it’s possible that some form of it happens at the majority of American high schools. “If someone had asked me a year ago if hazing could go on in our school, I think I’d have said no,” says Trumansburg Athletic Director Joel Wilson. “Now, I think it can happen anywhere.”

In a study published by Alfred University in 2000, the most comprehensive research of its kind, 35 percent of high school athletes reported being subjected to some form of hazing, but a code of silence about the issue among student-athletes can allow hazing to go undetected for years. Trumansburg administrators sought to break the taboo and communicate openly about the issue.

They started the investigation by individually interviewing the victims and the students who were accused of perpetrating the hazing, which led to the suspension of three varsity players from the last game of the season. Administrators also provided counseling with the school psychologist for both the victims and the perpetrators and met with parents of both groups to inform them of what was being done to address the issue and enlist their support.

The next, and more difficult, step was determining how widespread the problem was. “Just dealing with this isolated incident would be a simple solution,” Superintendent John Delaney says. “But it’s a complex problem, and a simple solution won’t cut it. I asked my high school principal [John Furey] and athletic director to look at this issue from every angle they could, so that we didn’t deal with just this incident, but also with the broader picture. We wanted to ask, where else is this going on in our school?”

Administrators’ first stop was the entire football team. “The high school principal and I met with the football program, both varsity and junior varsity,” Wilson says. “We expressed our concerns and gave all the players an opportunity to talk.”

Allowing players to give answers in writing proved a useful investigative tool. Wilson passed out paper and asked the football players to answer a simple question: Had they ever been hazed or been involved in hazing others? Although they were told they could be subject to disciplinary action, students were surprisingly candid in their answers.

“Several came forward and said, ‘I’ve been a victim’ or ‘I’ve been involved,’ or ‘I’ve been both a victim and involved,’” Wilson says. After reviewing the responses, Wilson and Furey met one-on-one with students whose responses raised red flags.

Next, administrators broadened their inquiry to the school’s other sports teams. “We canvassed our student-athletes and found out that this wasn’t just a football problem,” Delaney says. “Students told us that hazing was happening elsewhere, on both boys’ and girls’ teams.”

They also spoke with former players to find out how long it had been going on. “We interviewed athletes who graduated in the past few years about their experiences,” Wilson says. “That strategy worked really well for us, because they had developed some perspective on the situation and they had no reason not to be honest with us.

“We learned that hazing is not a new problem on our teams, and that it has gone on for years,” he continues. “I was surprised to discover how widespread hazing was, and I was surprised that they were taking the activity to the level they were.”

Dr. James Garbarino, a Cornell University professor and author of a book on bullying and youth violence, commends the individual interviews and suggests an additional investigative strategy. “When students are undergoing hazing, one response is to quit the team. So as an athletic director, you want to know the name of every kid who drops off of your teams,” he says. “An adult who the kids trust should be conducting confidential exit interviews with them. They need to ask, ‘I see you left the soccer team—can I ask you why?’ Their responses can give you another source of information about whether hazing is going undetected.”

“After we got through the investigative stages, we concluded that a problem existed,” Delaney says. “Then we began asking what we could do to change the situation.”

One immediate response involved increasing supervision, especially in the locker rooms. Under the school’s new policy, locker rooms remain locked unless a coach is available to supervise student-athletes.

“When you have a coach handling multiple tasks, talking with kids and putting equipment away, it’s easy to understand that they can’t be everywhere at once,” Delaney says. “But if the coach can’t maintain a presence in the locker room by making frequent pass-throughs, the locker room now has to be locked—period. It’s caused some inconvenience and frustration, but we felt it was a necessary immediate step.”

“We’ve also instructed coaches that locker rooms aren’t a place for players to hang out,” Wilson adds. “We tell them to get them in and get them out of the locker room as quickly as possible.”

Garbarino agrees that the new policy was an important first step. “One of the biggest risk factors for hazing behaviors is inadequate adult supervision,” he says. “We’ve found in our research that kids talk about places in the school they avoid because there is no adult supervision—no man’s land where bullies rule. And locker rooms are among the biggest ones.

“I think athletic administrators need to draw a map of the places where the student-athletes are in their programs,” Garbarino continues, “and ask themselves, is there enough close adult supervision that if something began to happen, a child would know there is an adult they can turn to?”

Care is also being taken with scheduling Trumansburg teams’ locker room times. “We’ve found that problems often occur between junior varsity and varsity players from the same sport, so we’re trying not to have different levels of the same program in the locker rooms at the same time,” Wilson says. “We stagger the different age groups.”

Changing locker room procedures was just the tip of the iceberg, however. “We believe that there are deeper, more systemic changes we need to make, and they are going to be much longer in their development,” says Delaney.

Those systemic changes are what Wilson is now concentrating on, in his work with both coaches and athletes. “Joel has helped us tremendously by making hazing a bigger part of our pre- and postseason meetings, so that we all have a chance to discuss it,” says Boys’ and Girls’ Track and Field Coach Bryce DeSantis. “We also have a regular breakfast meeting where the coaches and the athletic director can talk about any problems. The floor is open for discussion, and those meetings have been helpful in dealing with this issue.”

In structuring dialog between coaches and administration on hazing, Garbarino suggests giving newer coaches the floor first. “That way, if you have coaches who have been in the system a long time and see hazing as a harmless tradition, their attitudes won’t discourage younger coaches from talking about a new attitude toward it,” he says.

Wilson now also addresses student-athletes directly about the issue. “I meet with all of our athletes before the start of each season, and a lot more of my discussion now involves how they should treat each other,” he says. “In the past, I’ve focused on respecting opponents and officials, but now I address hazing directly and set expectations for them.”

In communicating with coaches, Wilson stresses their role in shaping athletes’ values and behaviors off the field. “It’s important for the athletic director to continually talk to coaches about the positive impact they can have on their athletes’ lives,” he says. “I’ve asked our coaches to focus on developing relationships with their athletes, and I’m giving them more assistance in doing that.
“We’ve always done a really good job of working with coaches in furthering their knowledge of Xs and Os through clinics,” he continues. “Now we’re working on developing clinics that help coaches foster positive relationships and respect on their teams.”

Through Delaney’s and Wilson’s leadership, Trumansburg coaches have embraced their roles as the first line of defense against hazing. They now realize that, as coaches, they can actually set the stage for hazing.

“There are subtle things about the way a coach treats athletes that can send a message that humiliating younger or weaker players is okay,” says Bond. “A coach who refers to a player as ‘the freshman’ or ‘the kid’ may be trying to be funny, but the rest of the players take it as a green light to disrespect that player.”

Garbarino agrees. “Coaches may do the job of pointing out the potential hazing victim,” he says. “A coach who is always singling out a player for criticism, or trying to motivate the team by saying, ‘Because Bobby didn’t run the laps in a certain time, you’re all going to run another lap’ is pointing the finger at Bobby and saying, ‘Can you guys do something about Bobby?’

“Those kinds of motivational techniques set a child up to be a victim,” he continues. “In effect, you’re saying, ‘It will probably be okay to go after Bobby, because I’m going after Bobby.’ The coach is humiliating Bobby, and what could be more permissive than that?”

Beyond role modeling, Trumansburg coaches are addressing the issue directly in dialogs with their players. “We have team talks every day going into practice, and a lot of those talks are about how players relate to each other, their roles on the team, and what each player contributes,” says Bond. “The best way to combat hazing is to address it in advance, by setting expectations for team behavior and communicating them to your athletes.”

Trumansburg coaches are also working hard to help their athletes understand that hazing establishes a hierarchy on the team that can be damaging in the long run. “Kids tend to buy into the idea that if you humiliate or dominate someone else, you climb a notch or two,” says Bond. “The coach’s job is to teach players that that way of thinking is flawed. On a team, you want everybody to be as big as possible, not make some teammates feel smaller. So I talk to my team about how we can make our weakest player stronger and make the most of each person’s contribution to the team. These are concepts I come back to from start to finish in every season.”

“My track team runs the gamut from ninth graders to seniors, so respect and inclusion are big issues,” DeSantis says. “Physically, 14 and 18 year-olds are a world apart, so we deal with it right up front. I tell my older athletes that I expect them to include the younger boys. I promote the track team as a family that has to stick together, and the sport as a shared experience. I think that helps prevent hazing from being an issue.”

Head Girls’ Volleyball Coach Pam Dunlap has a strategy for promoting respect between players of different ages. “To prevent problems between varsity and junior varsity girls, we have a big sister-little sister program,” she says. “A varsity player matches up with a JV player and they send each other good luck notes before games, buy each other candy, and the like. They look forward to it and get really creative about it. There is never a feeling of, ‘She’s just a JV player.’”

Dunlap also carefully divides tasks among the team. If one group sets up for matches, the other puts the equipment away. “I don’t buy the idea that freshmen should carry the equipment for the older players,” she says. “They share the responsibility.”

When hazing has gone on for years, as Trumansburg learned was the case at its school, administrators and coaches must also work to break a cycle that casts one year’s victims as the next year’s perpetrators. This is something the entire staff is continuing to work on.

“When we asked kids about their involvement, the most common response was that they had both been hazed and then hazed others,” Wilson says. “They feel that since it happened to them, they want to make it happen to the next group, and what happens one year tends to get ratcheted up the next.”

The most direct strategy for breaking the cycle is to address previous incidents head-on with teams at the beginning of a new season, according to Garbarino. “Coaches should be very up-front about what has gone on in the past,” he says. “They should tell athletes, ‘Even if there has been a tradition of hazing, and even if you’ve seen it go on or heard about it, things have changed and it is no longer going to be tolerated.’”

In addition, some student-athletes might not know what hazing is or what the athletic department’s policies are. “So you need to clarify for student-athletes how they should expect to be treated,” says Garbarino, “and make it very clear that the coaches and the athletic director are backing that up, that people who come forward will not be punished, that the information will be kept confidential as much as possible, and that it will be acted upon.”

Silence helps to keep the cycle going, so it’s just as important to think of new ways to encourage student-athletes to report hazing. “Coaches absolutely need to encourage kids to report hazing if it happens to them,” says Bond. “That invitation may be just what a player needs to get to the point of reporting it.”

Coaches can work with parents, too, to ensure that they aren’t sending their kids the message to “grin and bear it.” “It was actually parents who gave us the information about the incident at our school,” says Bond. “It took a lot of courage on the part of the family who did it, but hazing would end sooner if more parents did the same.”

Putting reporting procedures in place and informing student-athletes of them is also important. “There should be a central location for reporting, and it should be at least one level above the coaching staff,” Wilson says. “It could be the athletic director’s office, the high school principal’s office, central administration, or a school counselor. And students need to be aware of who that person is.

“We may also draft an anonymous form that student-athletes can use to report hazing,” Wilson says. “We have talked about having a box where they could put something in writing.”

Finally, breaking the cycle requires dealing carefully with victims when hazing is reported. “When an incident happens, the coach needs to re-validate the players who were disrespected,” Bond says. “They have to be re-invited and re-embraced. As coaches, we have to let them know that they are important to us, that we do not condone what happened to them or think it’s funny, and that we believe it was wrong. If you don’t do that, the victims end up waiting their turn to haze the next group.”

Now, with coaches on board and educational tactics in place, Wilson and Delaney believe they’re on their way to a better future. “We’re never going to be completely done with hazing, and we’re not going to be successful in every case,” Delaney says. “But that doesn’t mean we’re going to give up. Our job is to keep addressing the issue and working to make it better for the next kids coming in, and we believe we will be successful at that.”

Dr. James Garbarino and Dr. Ellen Delara are co-authors of And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents From Bullying, Harassment and Emotional Violence, published by Free Press.

Details on Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey published by Alfred University in 2000, can be found at www.alfred.edu/news/html/hazing_study.html.

Hank Nuwer, author of Broken Pledges (Longstreet Press) and Wrongs of Passage (IU Press) maintains a clearinghouse for news articles related to hazing at www.hazing.hanknuwer.com.

Find information about recently published books on hazing, anti-hazing speakers, and alternatives to hazing at www.stophazing.org.

For an article on hazing prevention at the college level, go to athleticsearch.com and enter “Clearing the Haze,” in the search window.

Sidebar #1: Coach in Crisis
When a hazing incident occurs, an athletic director will be busy dealing with student-athletes and parents, but also needs to remember to support his or her coaches. Some of the negative publicity that surrounds the event can fall on the coach’s shoulders, and feelings of discouragement and self-doubt can creep in.

Such was the case with Trumansburg Head Football Coach Julian Munoz, who was astonished and disheartened by his players’ behavior. “I work with those kids every day, both in the classroom and on the football field,” he says. “I felt that I had a close relationship with my players, and when the hazing incident came out, I was shocked and dismayed.

“I felt like I had failed the kids as a coach,” he continues. “I was crushed. At one point, I even considered stepping down as head football coach because I felt like it was my fault for not doing a better job of teaching them how to treat one another.”

Other coaches in the department can be affected, too. “It’s been pretty difficult for several members of our coaching staff,” says Trumansburg Athletic Director Joel Wilson. “Many of them have questioned whether they still feel comfortable with their role as coaches, because they feel that the message they’ve been trying to communicate to athletes for years hasn’t been getting through. Some of them re-evaluated their expectations regarding the coach-athlete relationship and how rewarding they thought coaching could be.”

“You think kids are hearing what you’re saying and that you’re working with good kids,” says Head Girls’ Volleyball Coach Pam Dunlap. “Then you hear that they’ve done something like this to their peers, and you realize that even good kids can make really poor decisions. It’s discouraging.”

Administrators played an important role in supporting the coaching staff throughout the incident. “[High school Principal] John Furey and Joel Wilson were there to talk with me and help me understand that the incident wasn’t my fault and that it is not just a football problem,” Munoz says. “They helped me realize that the issue goes much deeper than football or athletics, and that it’s not just an isolated thing that only happens in Trumansburg.”

“I worked to be as supportive as I could and provided as much information as possible,” Wilson says. “When I had coaches tell me they were considering resigning, I asked them to try to get past the emotional side of this, to take some time to heal, and that we’d talk again.

“I had several one-on-one conferences with coaches after this happened,” he continues, “and I asked them to continue on and be a positive influence in our kids’ lives. I explained to them that I thought the athletes needed them now more than ever.”

The support and information that administrators provided helped Munoz and others decide to continue on as coaches. They are now actively involved in the prevention efforts.

Sidebar#2: Involving the Community
While our main article focuses on how the athletic department at Trumansburg High School dealt with its hazing incident, eventually the entire community got involved in prevention efforts. Trumansburg Superintendent John Delaney wanted the public’s input on how to stop hazing and bullying in the lower grades and outside the athletics arena.

“Our process took us into hallways and cafeterias and study halls and classrooms and playgrounds and onto the bus,” says Delaney. “But we soon realized we would be much more effective in tackling the problem if we engaged not only the school community, but parents and the wider community as well.”

Open community forums were a key part of the administration’s approach. “When you are open with the community, you’re going to get some people who criticize you, and others who say, ‘I didn’t know this was going on in my school—we need to address it,’” says Delaney. “The purpose of the forums was to enlist the help of that second group.”

The meetings have been well-attended by students, parents, school staff, and concerned community members. Delaney posts summaries of the meetings on the school’s Web site so those who don’t attend can still stay involved.

Delaney chose to enlist Scott Sears, a Trumansburg resident whose job at nearby Cornell University involves promoting conflict resolution and community dialogue, to facilitate the forums. “Trumansburg took the opportunity to embrace last fall’s hazing incident as a community issue, a home issue, a school issue, and a societal issue,” Sears says. “That does make it big and ungainly, so my task is helping the community understand and productively work with a very large slithering creature.

“Recognizing that the problem is bigger than athletics or individual students makes it seem harder to deal with,” he continues, “but it also gives you different points for approaching a solution.”

Under Sears’ direction, the forums began with an effort to define the hazing, harassing, and bullying behaviors the community wanted to change, often breaking into small groups for discussions. “People have had an opportunity to examine their own perspectives and values and beliefs, and learn about each others’ views,” Sears says.

The open forums have also looked into what other schools have done in similar situations, examined research on the topic, and brainstormed ways to get more students involved in finding solutions. “Children will understand the situation much better than adults because they live it every day,” Sears says, “and they have some very good ideas about how to address it. So we’re working to pull that information into the discussion.”

Other ideas being discussed at the community meetings include establishing a parents’ advisory board for the athletic department, creating curriculum components to address bullying and hazing, and designating an ‘anti-bullying day’ where kids discuss the issues at school and parents follow up with talks at home.

“The process will be lengthy, but with community input, whatever is decided as a course of action will have broader support and a better chance of success,” Sears says. “Kids won’t be getting conflicting messages. If there is a consistent front being presented, it has a much higher likelihood of getting the desired behavior response.”

Boys’ Soccer Coach Christopher Bond agrees. “I think the sense of a community stance on this will put weight on the issue for the athletes,” he says. “The fact that all the adults in their community are taking what happened so seriously is going to force students to think before they act on an impulse in the future. The involvement of the community can’t help but percolate back to the actual athletes themselves.”