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High school hazing trends turning toward sexual torture, away from traditional pranks

Gloria GoodaleThe Christian Science Monitor

Amid National Hazing Prevention Week, allegations of hazing on two high school sports teams – a football team in Dedham, Mass., and a soccer team in La Puente, Calif. – are focusing attention on the fact that high school hazing appears to be increasing.

The growing spotlight on the issue has achieved some gains: At least 44 states now have some form of an antihazing law, according to the law firm Manley Burke, which maintains an online database to track these laws. But the cultural factors that feed the ongoing practice are winning, for now, says Elliot Hopkins of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis.

“From all the information we are gathering from around the country, this is definitely on the rise,” says Mr. Hopkins, who has spent two decades traveling the nation addressing educators on this issue.

Like bullying, hazing is by its very nature difficult to track. “Hazing is very underreported and difficult to put a number on,” he says. “These things are typically done to prove one is worthy to be in the group” and speaking up would ruin that.

“What makes it different from bullying is that it usually happens and then it is over," he adds. "Bullying, on the other hand, usually goes on without an end in sight."

Beyond the peer culture, the adults surrounding these children often turn a blind eye, either because they were hazed themselves and consider it a “rite of passage,” or because they don’t see it as serious, Hopkins says.

There are only two comprehensive recent studies that deal with high school hazing – one in 2000 by Alfred University and another in 2008 by the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention. Both show that some 47 percent of secondary school students experienced a form of hazing or ritualized initiation behavior that ranges from embarrassment and humiliation to sexual molestation and criminal conduct.

As antibullying programs have begun to spread around the nation’s schools, antihazing initiatives are growing as well. Hazing Prevention was founded five years ago in Aurora, Colo., and is the group behind National Hazing Prevention Week.

“The biggest problem is the degree to which hazing has become normalized,” says founder Tracy Maxwell, who says that the necessary data to fully understand the scope of the problem are still being collected. “We are only now just beginning to get the baseline information we need.”

Social media has helped push the problem into the light, she says, noting that while many students would be reluctant to tell school officials about sexual attacks, “they will put it up on social media.”

She says that the dramatic rise in sexually oriented hazing is the most alarming element in the growth of hazing.

In the allegations that broke over this past weekend, two boys from the La Puente High School soccer team told news media that they had been sexually molested with a pole by their teammates in the spring. Details have yet to emerge in the Dedham incident; the media are not being given information because all the children involved are minors.

The increase in sexualized hazing parallels the rapid sexualization of high and middle schoolers, says Hopkins. “They are becoming highly sexualized at an ever younger age,” he says. Add this to a culture that thrives on extreme behavior, and the kinds of ugly hazing incidents that are emerging is not surprising.

The sexual nature of the hazing rituals is not uncommon, says Charles Williams, associate professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Emasculating and humiliating each other through homoerotic behavior has been a part of male culture since ancient times,” he notes via e-mail.

The issue is also about what youth are willing to endure in order to belong and fit in. “This is a conversation that has to start in the home,” he says. Given the recent hazing death of a student at Florida A&M University, “we need to do much more to address this tragedy, but it has to start with a candid conversation about changing the culture.”

“It’s not enough to just say we have a policy and expect that to change anything,” agrees Ms. Maxwell, suggesting that there needs to be sustained education and an effort to create a genuine culture change.