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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Some People Just Don't Get It: A Tale of a High School Hazing Problem

The setting:  suburban Philadelphia.

The school:  one of the best public high schools in the state.

The problem:  an unsupervised problem with many incidents over the years of unwelcomed sexual touching, including what only can be described as a rape with a broom handle. 

The result: firing of the entire coaching staff, sensitivity training, more supervision, more protection and all of the appropriate stop signs that get put up after the bad accident takes place.

The current problem:  These folks -- all connected to the football program in some fashion -- just don't get it.

Yes, there are cases where rules are enacted to solve esoteric problems that affect only one percent of the population or less, and that's because those incidents draw major, national headlines.  But this is not one of them.  Hazing continues to be a big problem; sexualized hazing does too.

In corporations, you can have people at the lowest levels do things that the head of a division did not know about.  In many of those places, if the problem was pervasive, the remedy is to clear out the leadership and start anew.  The reason -- something must have been wrong with the culture of the place that such systemic problems persisted for such a long period of time and the culture was such that no one felt they could speak up or had anywhere to go with his problems. 

The same holds true for societies, nations, groups, teams, schools, what have you.  And what happened at this high school was bad enough and lasted long enough that no matter how good an "x and o's" man the coach was and for how long, he also sat atop a culture that was badly outdated and ill-equipped to prevent let alone solve the types of bad behavior that occurred.  Basically, the coaches either ignored the locker room or turned a blind eye toward it, at least from the reports from the newspapers and from the District Attorney. 

I know, as one parent advised, that we shouldn't try the entire program by newspaper and throw everyone into the same bucket.  There is a difference, though, between a legal remedy and a culture one.  And I don't think here that we should get into semantics and try to figure out how the coaches should remain when the culture was so bad.  These coaches had a responsibility to all players, not just the starters, not just the stars, and not just the upperclassmen.  Young players should be challenged and welcomed to their teams with open arms -- they are the future, and as younger players they help the veterans get better by practicing hard and by challenging them.  They should be mentored and nurtured and not tortured or live in fear that at any moment after practice they could get ganged up on and forced to do things against their will.  It's that simple. 

Otherwise, what did this coaching staff and this program think that it was instilling in young men?  Leadership?  Character? 

The arguments "well it goes on everywhere" and "boys will be boys" don't cut it.  First, it doesn't go on everywhere, and, second, if it does, then it's wrong everywhere and should be cleaned up.  Second, aren't we trying to turn the boys into responsible young adults?  How does hazing and forcing people to do things against their will accomplish that?   And arguments blaming the school district's administration for a lack of supervision fall somewhat flat.  True, they deserve part of the blame for the culture, but it is also true that they delegated the oversight to the high school's athletic department and football coaches.  Besides, some parents were trying to deflect blame away from the coaches and onto the school board and superintendent's office when making this claim. 

What happened was terrible.  What happened requires a culture change.  And it would be hard if not impossible to have a coaching staff that failed in its supervisory role to be the architects and implementers of this type of culture change.  That does not mean that they are bad men.  That does not mean that they necessarily were bad coaches or that they did not have a positive effect on the lives of some of the kids they coached.  What it does mean is that they failed in such a critical area of the job that they need to be replaced.  The football team needs to hit the re-set button.

Yes, everyone is entitled to his defense, and the young men who stand accused by the District Attorney will get their day in court.  But the School District did an investigation, and it is required to act upon the findings of that investigation.  Not every investigation is perfect, and the coaches have friends in the community.  All of the factors raised in this post create a difficult cocktail for any community to digest.  That said, starting anew is the best way for this district to heal from the awful problem that plagued it for years.

Finally, I would ask anyone defending the football program, defending the coaches from losing their jobs, attacking the superintendent or the school board the following question:  what if your kid was the slender freshman on the football team who was held down by three upperclassmen and repeatedly penetrated with a broom handle?  What would you say then?


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