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Paddling incident highlights continued Canada issue with hazing

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Barrhaven students suspended for hazing
Grade 9 boys paddled ‘pretty hard’ during secret ritual

Joanne Laucius
The Ottawa Citizen

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Three Grade 12 boys have been suspended after an incident at a Barrhaven high school in which younger boys were “paddled,” some on their bare buttocks, as a secret initiation ritual.

The incident underscores the difficulty in eliminating hazing even as schools have outlawed the practice while trying to find less dangerous and more constructive ways to observe teenage rites of passage through high school.

School board administrators say they just discovered the paddling ritual, believed to be a long-standing underground rite of passage at the school. Officials took action after receiving complaints from parents about the incident, which occurred outside the school in mid-September.

According to the parents, Grade 12 students who had been paddled as freshmen claimed the right to deliver a paddling to a group of boys in Grade 9. Although some older girls were observers, they did not participate.

Walter Piovesan, superintendent of instruction for John McCrae Secondary School, said the school’s principal, who is new this year, called him as soon as he heard about the incident.

Although Mr. Piovesan has been a superintendent for three years, he has never heard about the ritual until this year, he said.

“This is a splinter group. Student councils organize events that are welcoming and inviting,” he said.

Anne Teutsch, chairwoman of the Ottawa-Carleton Assembly of School Councils, said she heard about the incident after a parent came forward, although the complaint was not formally presented to the assembly, which represents school councils from across the public school board.

“My understanding is that some of the kids were paddled pretty hard,” said Ms. Teutsch.

“Maybe these things happen, but that doesn’t make them right,” she said.

“It’s only a joke if it’s a joke to everyone. If a joke isn’t funny to everyone, it’s not appropriate.”

Earlier this month, trustees in Steinbach, Manitoba, suspended six Grade 12 students, boys and girls, until at least February for a hazing and alleged physical assault of three Grade 10 students with paddles. Reportedly, the older students lured the younger students away from a barbecue arranged to welcome students to the school.

In August, 14 Edmonton-area 16-year-olds were charged with assault after eight younger students were paddled with hockey sticks, homemade paddles and cricket bats. The victims’ injuries ranged from reddened buttocks to bruises and bleeding.

On the first day of school last month, a 15-year-old Hamilton student sustained non-life-threatening injuries after he was stabbed in the abdomen when a group of Grade 12 students confronted a group of Grade 9 students at Delta Secondary School. Police said they believed the incident was hazing-related and the student was trying to help a friend who was being bullied. Hamilton school board officials are contemplating hiring adult hall monitors to patrol the school’s cafeteria, halls and grounds.

The Safe Schools Act, introduced in 2000 in Ontario, provides a code of conduct that outlines responsibilities for making schools safer for students and staff. The act provides mandatory consequences for behaviour that breaks the code, including suspension for uttering threats to inflict bodily harm and expulsion for using a weapon to cause of threaten harm.

However, the province has since moved away from a “punitive approach” to something called “progressive discipline,” which allows principals to choose the most appropriate response to each situation.

The school board is working on other measures, including restorative justice, which engages those who are harmed and those who do the harm to work on solutions that promote reconciliation and healing. So far, five “restorative circles” have been held at schools in the board instead of suspending students or calling on police to lay charges.

“In some cases, suspension may work. In some cases, it may not change behaviour,” said Mr. Piovesan.

The parents who contacted the school board about the John McCrae incident were concerned the clandestine and tradition-bound nature of the paddling ritual means it creates victims who become perpetrators of bullying.

Rituals have different mechanisms in some ways than bullying, said Mr. Piovesan. They become established as part of a school’s culture and it’s difficult for administrators to uproot a tradition, especially one that depends on secrecy.

“One of the barriers we face when we deal with rituals or rites of passage is that kids are not willing to identify other kids.”

Often, the younger students feel pressured into participating and participate willingly because it gives them a sense of belonging, he said.

“I’m not telling you that some kids aren’t coerced. But some kids feel like part of the club.”

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has introduced the concept of a “community of character.” A team of teachers has been recruited to embed 10 attributes such as empathy, respect, fairness and responsibility into the curriculum.

“We’re trying to get away from ‘anti-bullying day’ or ‘anti-bullying weeks’ ” said Mr. Piovesan, pointing out that research suggests these approaches don’t work.

“Ninety-nine per cent of kids are doing what they are supposed to do,” he said. “Research shows that empowering kids is very powerful.”

Parents and students are being more frequently notified about activities, like the end-of-year “tequila sunrise” parties, to warn them that police can get involved when students step over legal boundaries, said Ms. Teutsch.

Shelley Hymel, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia who studies bullying and peer harassment in schools, said bullying is defined by three parameters: intent to harm, the possibility of a recurrence and a difference in status between the bully and the victim.

The distinction is in the perception of the victim.

“If kids are coerced into doing it, then it’s bullying,” she said.

There may be parents who think the students’ punishment was too lenient, said Mr. Piovesan. But mitigating circumstances, such as a student’s past record, are considered.

Mr. Piovesan has been a teacher or administrator at five high schools and can recall only one other initiation ritual. In that incident, Grade 9 students were ordered by older students to jump into a pond.

“Whether it happens next year, I don’t know,” he said. “But we’re developing strategies.”
© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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