Announcer: And now, from Time Square in New York, Elizabeth Vargas.
ELIZABETH VARGAS, host:
Good evening. We’re glad you could join us DOWNTOWN tonight. We begin with high school memories you won’t find in any yearbook. Behind the flaunted photos of the star athlete, there is a dark story. A tale of terror, intimidation and sexual degradation. You’ll hear it tonight from high school athletes who still have not recovered from their ordeal. Their teammates called it hazing, a ritual that makes you one of the guys. But is high school hazing crossing the line into criminal behavior? When we come back, Chris Cuomo with a sick, new twist of an old rite of passage.
ANNOUNCER: DOWNTOWN begins with BREAKING BOYS, and now Chris Cuomo.
CHRIS CUOMO reporting:
Tonight I am going to talk to you about something some of you may be trying to forget: hazing. This controversial tradition usually involved pranks like short sheeting a bed, or pushing and slapping around a newcomer. These rough practical jokes were supposed to promote bonding in a group, build unity in a sports team. But not anymore. In more and more cases across the country, hazing is becoming more aggressive and strangely sexual in nature, more about brutality than bonding.
(VO) Winslow, Arizona, is a small railroad town where high school sports rule. Residents take great pride in their athletic tradition. But now, that grand tradition is in question because of hazing.
(OC) What happened to you should never be confused with hazing.
Mr. NICK BRANSON: It’s not hazing. It’s not horsing around. It’s violation of people.
CUOMO: (VO) Nick Branson, a sophomore at Winslow, used to love sprinting and pole vaulting and just being a part of the school track team. That all changed on team picture day.
(OC) Tell me about what happened.
Mr. BRANSON: I went because it was picture day and I looked out onto the football field, and that’s where everybody was. I walked over there and one of the perpetrators, he looked at me and he said, ‘Let’s get him,’ and I didn’t know what was going to happen so I kind of started to back away and a kid grabbed me from behind and held me. And another one ran up and tackled me to the ground, and then two others came and held me down to the ground and one of them started putting their fingers into my rectum area, through my sweats and underwear. And they were holding me down. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had no idea what was going to happen. They told me if I didn’t sit down, it was going to happen again. So I stayed sitting down.
CUOMO: Did you feel dominated? Did you feel like now you had to be afraid of these people?
Mr. BRANSON: Yeah.
CUOMO: Were you afraid?
Mr. BRANSON: Yeah, I was afraid because I didn’t want this to happen again.
CUOMO: Did the other kids see this going on?
Mr. BRANSON: Yeah, the whole boys track team saw it.
CUOMO: What did they do?
Mr. BRANSON: Nothing, because they didn’t want it to happen to them.
CUOMO: (VO) Nick says he was afraid to tell for fear of being labeled a snitch, but he believed what happened was not just a prank, and so did others.
Mr. BRANSON: I wasn’t sure if I should tell or if I should just forget about it, but some of them knew at school and they were referring to it as rape.
CUOMO: Did you think that you had been raped?
Mr. BRANSON: Yeah, I thought that was the right–they were using the right word for it.
CUOMO: (VO) When Nick learned the school was investigating a similar incident, he decided to tell his story. Soon after, the threats began.
Mr. BRANSON: A kid was asking about it, and he said, ‘I heard a rumor that you’re going to press charges.’ This friend of the perpetrators walked in and he said ‘I’ll kick your ass if you do.’
CUOMO: (VO) What made the accusations even more shocking was the fact that the three accused perpetrators were not thugs. One was the team star and senior class president. Some believe the boys received only a five-day suspension, initially, because they were big men on campus.
Mr. BRANSON: It’s tough because I’d see them in the hall and they would walk around like nothing happened. People treated them like nothing happened, like they didn’t do anything bad.
CUOMO: But they treated you like you did something bad?
Mr. BRANSON: Yeah, and the fact that I came out with it, and told on them, I guess, made me–they thought, in their eyes, I was the bad guy, because he got in trouble for it.
CUOMO: (VO) The sheriff investigated and concluded Nick wasn’t alone. According to their reports, there had been at least nine other victims. There had been a pattern of alleged hazing dating back months to basketball season. Dozens of witnesses have said many acts occurred on bus rides home from games. May sound like typical horseplay, until you imagine what was revealed in these accounts. Upper classmen calling these kids to the back of the bus, covering their mouths, holding them down, and inserting markers, pencils, and fingers into their rectums. Each time they were threatened, if they told, it would happen again.
(OC) I’ve been on sports teams my whole life and I’ve experienced hazing. Stuff like red bellies where they hold you on the ground and slap your belly till it’s sore. And I’ve been teased and pushed around by the bigger and older players on my teams, but nothing like this. The cases we’re seeing are closer to sexual assault than slapping around and the behavior that’s being excused as hazing isn’t bringing kids closer together. It’s scaring them away.
(VO) In Connecticut, eight wrestlers are charged with assaulting two freshmen during a hazing incident. In Texas, four members of the football team plead guilty to hazing after inserting a plastic bottle into another team members rectum.
Unidentified Reporter: Some of the younger baseball players told police that the seniors harassed then sexually battered them.
CUOMO: (VO) In California, three members of the baseball team were reported accused by younger players of sexually battering them while on a road trip.
(OC) So you have been tracking this problem since 1975. Has it changed?
Mr. HANK NUWER: It’s changed an awful lot. The problem involves a lot younger people. We’re seeing it at the high school level. We’re seeing more sexual assaults.
CUOMO: (VO) Hank Nuwer has been watching and writing about hazing for decades.
Mr. NUWER: I’ve never seen so many sodomies, the insertion of things into people’s bodies before, and I’m seeing hazing that’s more malicious, sadistic and sexually oriented right now.
CUOMO: Why is it getting worse?
Mr. NUWER: I think there’s more of a asking people to prove themselves. Finding them unworthy and then the group descending on that individual in a very, very punishing sort of way.
CUOMO: (VO) I have never really thought about where hazing comes from until now. Dr. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist and she told me hazing is just a reflection of man’s primitive desire to determine pecking order.
Dr. HELEN FISHER: The human males have a very clear sense of status, of rank, of dominance, of who’s on top and who’s the boss. And, indeed, little boys on the playground start jockeying for position really as early as they can walk. And they’re constantly working to get to be top dog. And they do it by hazing each other, by calling each other names, by pushing each other, by hitting each other, by ganging up on each other.
CUOMO: (VO) But much of what we’re seeing isn’t just teasing and could cause incredible humiliation, especially to a developing young man.
(OC) When you have a adolescent boy and you do homo-erotic things to them, where does that fit on the scale of humiliation?
Dr. FISHER: For teen-age boys, it’s very important to assume their sexual persona and to know who they are sexually and this, of course, really challenges them to withstand the worst kind of humiliation you can have, which is sexual.
CUOMO: (VO) But how much should a kid have to take to prove he’s a player? Chip Stewart was a 15-year-old freshman who was often teased because of his learning disabilities. Chip dreamed of fitting in and saw the high school wrestling team as the answer. It wouldn’t work out that way. At first he was just given a hard time. But soon, things got worst.
Mr. CHIP STEWART: I was in the locker room. Practice was over with. I got my pants on and they came over a few minutes after.
CUOMO: How many?
Mr. STEWART: I would say five. They held me down and shoved a broom stick up my butt. It didn’t penetrate.
CUOMO: Do you remember what you would think when these guys were attacking you in the locker room?
Mr. STEWART: I was thinking, ‘Stop, stop, don’t do this to me, please.’
CUOMO: How would you react? Would you cry? Would you get angry?
Mr. STEWART: I would get angry. I wouldn’t say I cried but it was kind of like I started to cry, but I really didn’t.
CUOMO: (VO) Why pick on Chip? Why do some teens pick on a single member?
Mr. NUWER: With that particular person, they almost might feel there’s a good thing to drive him away. That he’s interfering with the unity of the team. Interfering with our image of ourselves as winners. Taking away from some of the status that we want in being part of this team.
CUOMO: (VO) Chip shows a tough front as he tells me about this bizarre brand of motivation, but he suffered. After a teacher heard him being threatened about visits from a broomstick called Pedro, he was compelled to tell all. Like most victims, his reward for revealing the attacks was to be ostracized.
(OC) What were the kids saying to you when they found out what was going on at wrestling practice?
Mr. STEWART: They said that I was gay and they–saying that I like it up the butt.
CUOMO: Did you become kind of a joke in the school because of what was going on?
Mr. STEWART: Yeah. Kids would make fun of me.
CUOMO: (VO) District attorney Michael Callahan prosecuted this case.
(OC) If this was a group of boys that grabbed another young boy out on the streets somewhere coming out of a movie and they did the same things to that boy that they did to Chip, do you think they would have gotten off as easily?
Mr. MICHAEL CALLAHAN (Summit County Prosecutor): Absolutely not. I don’t think they would have gotten off near as easily.
CUOMO: The hazing was crime of a protective environment.
Mr. CALLAHAN: I hesitate to call you a willing participant. I guess you’re no more of a willing participant than the battered woman is a willing participant in her battering at home. And yet there is still some perception that you’re there, and you can leave anytime you want.
CUOMO: (VO) But for young men, who are desperate to be accepted, leaving is not an easy option. Chip says after his humiliation became public, he suffered panic attacks at school, and as a result, has been home schooled and in therapy for over a year. His hazers were found guilty of misdemeanor assault and were given community service and forced to apologize. Still, while Chip is home alone, his attackers are back at school. Last week Winslow High School held its graduation ceremony on the same field where Nick and others say they were attacked. Eight students, all involved with the alleged hazing, were conspicuously absent. The school suspended them and they’ve been indicted for kidnapping and sexual assault. However, they say their behavior was just horseplay and have pled not guilty. Nick Branson still goes to Winslow High School, but running track is just an ugly memory.
Mr. BRANSON: I still think about it everyday. Every night before I go to bed. It’s in my mind. I’m angry that they did this. I don’t know if I could ever forgive them.
VARGAS: Forty-one states now have laws that make even simple hazing a crime. And here’s another important tip. If your teen-ager is on a sports team, watch for signs of trouble: a loss of appetite, a sudden change in behavior, possible signals that something has happened and your child needs help.
Coming up later in our program, 10 deadly hours in Tampa. Three cops murdered, a little boy dead. This man pulled the trigger. So why is the child’s grieving mother in prison?
And when we come back, are you looking at the next Tiger Woods? An athletic prodigy who prefers the Golf Channel to Barney. JuJu Chang with a three-year-old boy on target for fame.
Mr. JACK LINDSEY: He doesn’t miss. That’s what’s scary. He does not miss a ball.