And the story.
That has been standard practice for years at high schools and universities, the product of changing social norms and growing concerns about legal liability. But experts say such policies do little to prevent hazing unless paired with meaningful action to create a culture of respect and equality.
“If something’s just on paper but no one follows it, we conclude it’s not real,” said Linda Langford, a Massachusetts-based consultant who works with schools on hazing prevention. “That young athlete might say, ‘People have to know it’s happening and they’re not saying anything, so they must think it’s OK — and I have to go along with it.'”
The standard definition of hazing, such as the one published by the National Federation of State High School Associations, is “any humiliating or dangerous activity expected of a student to belong to a group, regardless of their willingness to participate.”
It has been documented in all sorts of organizations, from the military to marching bands, but it has long been especially prevalent on sports teams: One national survey found that 74 percent of college varsity athletes had been subjected to hazing, the largest proportion of any group.
Susan Lipkins, a New York-based psychologist and expert witness in hazing cases, said the varying ages, sizes and skill levels of athletes create natural hierarchies on sports teams. Hazing is sometimes seen as a way to maintain that pecking order, she said, especially when coaches encourage team leaders to enforce order without giving them any kind of training.
“Coaches may not call it hazing,” she said. “They’ll call it tradition, discipline or a rite of passage, but it’s hazing.”
Niles North administrators have not commented on the nature of the alleged hazing other than to say it involved the varsity team, which was suspended from practice and competition. Local police investigating the claim have been equally mum about specifics.
A former player told the Tribune that Niles North coaches were clear that hazing was not allowed, and the school’s extracurricular code of conduct says it is “strictly forbidden at any time and in any location.”
Wheaton College, where five football players were recently charged with criminal offenses stemming from an alleged hazing incident, had a similar policy. So did Lake Zurich, which is facing a lawsuit from two boys who say they were hazed by fellow football players last year.
Elizabeth Allan, who researches hazing at the University of Maine and trains college staffers on how to prevent it, said that’s not an unusual scenario.
“My experience is that the policy doesn’t communicate clearly enough about why (an anti-hazing mindset) is needed,” she said.
She collaborated with the Clery Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes campus safety, on a hazing prevention guide. It advises schools to communicate anti-hazing messages from top officials, conduct trainings for student leaders and promote “bystander intervention” to disrupt unsafe behavior.
“Those things don’t take a ton of effort, and I think they could yield some real gains based on what we know from the data,” Allan said.
Langford said anti-hazing policies are like speed limits — effective only if enforced. They can seem hollow if supposedly harmless activities, such as forcing newcomers to carry equipment bags or wear silly outfits, are tolerated.
“If your policy says it’s not allowed, you have to not allow it, whether or not you think it’s serious,” she said.
Jennifer Waldron, a physical education professor at the University of Northern Iowa who has researched hazing predictors, said sports that enjoy greater prestige tend to be at higher risk for hazing (they include football and, in her home state, wrestling). Male athletes are also more prone than female athletes to engage in physical, violent hazing, she said.
Changing the attitudes that lead to hazing can be difficult, especially in sports where athletes are drilled to be tough and uncomplaining. But Waldron said coaches have to make it a priority.
“There are ways to have quick conversations — even the ways the coaches interact with the players, what they allow to happen in practice,” she said. “There are ways to establish a climate that is more positive, versus having 30-minute conversations that have to happen every week.”
Another Northern Iowa professor, Christopher Kowalski, said the best form of hazing prevention is to establish an atmosphere of caring and support. When a different sort of culture is allowed to exist, his research has shown, hazing can take root no matter what official policy says.
“You really have to have people who are willing to say, ‘I’m not going to sacrifice a positive group culture for winning,'” he said.
Once a hazing incident does take place, some experts say, a deep and unsparing review must follow. The RAND Corp., a think tank that studies public policy, examined the reaction of Florida A&M University after drum major Robert Champion died in a 2011 hazing ritual, and found it was “coordinated, comprehensive, and well designed.”
The reforms the university imposed included small group discussions about hazing, a reporting system that did not require students to give their names, and the creation of alternative bonding opportunities such as philanthropic competitions.
Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 announced its own spate of changes in the wake of its hazing crisis, which involved forced sexual acts and other forms of degradation committed by athletes, according to the lawsuit. The district now has a tip line for students to report hazing and increased monitoring of the locker rooms.
It also brought in Elliot Hopkins, a staffer with the National Federation of State High School Associations and a board member of HazingPrevention.Org, to do educational presentations. He said he met with teams and parent groups to discuss how to change the culture, and came away encouraged.
His message, he said, was simple:
“This is your school,” he said. “This is what people will remember about you as long as you live in this community. That legacy can be very positive or negative. You have to be invested and understand that your actions matter.”