The sexual abuse a Forney High soccer player says he suffered repeatedly at the hands of his teammates appears to be the latest episode of a recurring nightmare in schools across the country.
The teenager told authorities that some members of his team grabbed him by the arms and legs and jammed fingers and pens through his soccer shorts — again and again in locker rooms at the school and elsewhere, over nine to 10 months last year.
A second soccer player made a similar complaint to the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Department, which has accused five students of sexual assault as part of a hazing investigation.
The case in Forney echoes the scandal in La Vernia, a town near San Antonio, where 13 high school athletes were arrested last year after they allegedly sodomized younger teammates with bottles and other objects.
Sexual assault is a difficult topic to discuss, but news stories about school hazing offer parents an opportunity to broach the subject with their children, said Tracy Maxwell, founder of HazingPrevention.Org, an anti-hazing advocacy group.
Just how prevalent is student-on-student sexual violence? The Associated Press said it uncovered roughly 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students in the U.S. over a recent four-year period. But that tally is incomplete because the crime is under-reported and tracked inconsistently across states.
Maxwell, a longtime Greek life consultant, spoke with The Dallas Morning News this week about hazing and what parents should be asking their children and their kids’ coaches. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Over the years, the public has read about horrible and tragic initiation rituals in high school sports and college fraternities. We see the accused get in legal trouble. Why hasn’t that deterred the behavior?
People getting convicted for this, and being charged with this, is pretty new. I know it seems like lately there have been a lot of cases that have been very public and we’ve heard a lot about them, but even though 44 states have laws against hazing, it’s only very recently that students have been charged and cases have actually gone to trial and there have been convictions. It’s still pretty rare.
As that happens more, it will become a deterrent. A lot of things in our culture are shifting right now, and these behaviors that used to be maybe written off as a necessary part of a male bonding ritual are no longer acceptable.
What compels students to stay quiet when they’re being repeatedly hurt or humiliated by their peers?
The shame is a huge factor. I can compare it to some of the things that are going on right now with sexual harassment and sexual assault and domestic violence. It’s really easy for someone on the outside of one of those situations to say, “Why didn’t the person just leave, or why didn’t they report it, or why didn’t they say something?”
But when you’re inside that situation you see it differently. You think, “This must be happening to me because something is wrong with me.” Or, “It must be bothering me because something is wrong with me.” You don’t tend to see the problems with the hazer. You internalize it and make it about you.
Many hazing cases reported in sports involve sodomy. How do student perpetrators justify the behavior to themselves? Are they not seeing it as sexual assault?
I have no idea how people justify it to themselves, except probably just that they went through it themselves. I used to think hazers were these evil people who were outliers in our society, and after reading Philip Zimbardo’s work*, which really talks about how easily normal people can engage in behavior that is shocking, I don’t necessarily think that anymore. I just think hazers are people who are hazed, usually. They’re just continuing the cycle of abuse.
*Zimbardo’s famous and widely cited Stanford prison experiment in 1971 re-created a prison in a university basement and randomly assigned 24 college students with no mental health problems to be guards or prisoners. The guards became increasingly sadistic and the prisoners more depressed as the days passed. Critics say the guards were behaving as Zimbardo had encouraged them to act.
What are red flags for parents?
It’s a lot of the same signs that parents are told to watch for any other problems. Any time your child is acting strangely, if they’re withdrawn, if they seem angry for no reason, if they’re not associating with the friends that they used to associate with, or they seem sad — all of those can be signs that something is going on. All the news stories now give parents a great opportunity to bring this up.
A good way to talk about it is to use the language of, “Is something happening to you that makes you uncomfortable?” Because if you say, “Are you being hazed?” they may say no. There was a study out of the University of Maine that showed that 9 out of 10 people who were hazed didn’t recognize that what happened to them was hazing. No wonder it’s not being reported. Most people don’t even recognize it as hazing. They might see it as problematic, but they don’t know that it’s illegal.
How can parents get their children to confide in them?
These are difficult topics to talk about, especially if you’re a teenager with your parent. Foster the relationship that you already have. The more you’ve opened up the dialogue to talk about important issues, the more likely they may be to come to you.
What about parents who suspect their children are the aggressors?
I often see that parents’ viewpoint on this issue depends upon which side their child is on. If their child is the aggressor, they tend to excuse the behavior and say, “It’s no big deal” and “Why would you ruin someone’s life over this?” What I would really encourage parents to think is, “If my child were the one being abused, how would I feel?” Try to think about it from the victim’s point of view. Parents can play a big role in helping their children see the error of their ways. If they’re just repeating patterns of behavior, it can be difficult to stop that.
Should parents start talking to their children about this before high school?
Yes. We’ve seen hazing at the middle school level. Even though athletes and fraternity members are the biggest hazers, as the University of Maine study shows, what it also found is that hazing happens at all levels of our society and in all kinds of organizations, including band and performing arts, choir, church groups and even in the workplace.
What questions should parents be asking their children’s coaches or school administrators?
I would ask questions about how closely locker rooms, travel buses and summer camps are supervised, because those tend to be the places where these kinds of things happen. So if there are long stretches of time that their children are unsupervised in these kinds of settings, it opens the door, perhaps. I will say, though, supervision doesn’t always guarantee safety.
Some follow-up questions would be: How do you feel about hazing and how much power are team captains given to set the rules and discipline? I would ask: Are there different expectations for different classes? Are the newest members of the team expected to do extra duties that others aren’t? Those could potentially point to red flags and something that you should pay more attention to.
The other thing I would ask about is education. Do you have an anti-hazing policy, and what is it? And how do you communicate it to the team? Some of the studies have found that at least the perception — so this may not be reality — but the perception was that often coaches knew about the hazing and because they didn’t say anything to stop it, the students assumed that there was tacit approval.