The Capacity for Cruelty – When Hazing Goes too Far

Conestoga High School, known widely for its academic excellence and strong athletic program, has recently come into the spotlight for a less redeemable reason – hazing. A select group of players on the Conestoga football team were accused of various acts of verbal, physical, and sexual assault, including a weekly ritual called “No-Gay Thursday” in the locker room, leading to a full investigation of the school’s athletic program. As Conestoga authorities weed through the evidence, interviewing bundles of students to uncover more details about the happenings, various opinions have arisen regarding the incident. A Radnor High School Senior proclaims, “My little brother’s good friend says that the kid who reported the story is unreliable. His family is known for frivolous lawsuits and he’s been caught selling drugs in school.” Despite these allegations questioning the initial reporter’s reliability, several students have come forward to support the same accusations of physical and verbal abuse. The Chester County district attorney reported that examples of such abuse included, “upperclassmen making younger students clean the locker room in their underwear and players putting their genitals on teammates’ heads.” On these grounds, the “hazers” were charged with assault and unlawful restraint but not hazing. While Pennsylvania is one of 44 states to have anti-hazing laws, the laws only apply to college students.
The scandal in its entirety has prompted many schools to look inward and examine their own policies regarding hazing. Within Radnor High School, hazing is a level III violation. Level III violations are classified as “acts against persons or property which do not seriously endanger the health or safety of others in school.” Within the current rulebook, hazing can be punished by a variety of means ranging from parent contact to criminal prosecution depending on the offense’s severity. Nonetheless, hazing is currently not classified as a level IV violation – anything that raises a threat to the well-being of school students and/or faculty. The Radnor Township School District policy page defines hazing as “any activity that recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental health, physical health or safety of a student or causes willful destruction or removal of public or private property for the purpose of initiation or membership in or affiliation with any organization recognized by the Board.” Thus, while hazing is technically classified as a level III violation in the student handbook, the school’s definition of hazing is in direct accordance with the parameters of a level IV violation. Radnor High School goes on to specify its definition of hazing, stating endangerment to physical health as “brutality of a physical nature, such as whipping; beating; branding; forced calisthenics; exposure to the elements; forced consumption of any food, alcoholic beverage, drug, or controlled substance.” This definition of endangerment to physical health brings up several questions regarding Radnor’s current athletic program. Could the soccer team’s tradition of shaving freshman’s hair fall under the category of “branding”? Could the swimming team’s tradition of having the freshman run a lap around the track in their speedos be classified as “exposure to the elements” or “forced calisthenics”? While these questions might seem trivial, as most of the high school’s traditions are practiced in what a majority sees as “good fun,” Radnor’s policy on hazing actually blatantly states “any hazing activity, whether by an individual or a group, shall be presumed to be a forced activity, even if a student willingly participates.”
A few freshman athletes offered their experiences and interactions with the upperclassmen. Regarding hazing itself, freshman Cate Cox says, “I was never worried about it in the first place. The only pressure I that I ever felt was to keep up athletically with the older girls, but everyone is supportive and we are lucky to have such great upperclassmen as role models.” Many of the freshman look up to the upperclassmen and generally find them to be positive influences. “We’re actually pretty lucky to have such nice seniors. I don’t think that I’ve ever felt uncomfortable – maybe just nervous sometimes when I have to play with them,” said Sarah Beth Lanzone. It is evident that the upperclassmen have a certain power over the team, which may be intimidating for some, but such power is normally derived from their greater experience and skill on the field or court. The underclassmen accept their responsibilities, just as their older teammates had before them. Sarah Beth adds, “We just have to take care of equipment as freshman.”
While taking care of equipment or taking out water is a ritual that is widely accepted by underclassmen, not all rituals are meant to be accepted simply because they are “tradition.” It is common for students to fall under the impression that something is okay simply because their peers and upperclassmen have experienced it. Conestoga’s “No Gay Thursday” tradition ran its course for three years without intervention. Underclassmen may feel that they can’t speak out when they feel uncomfortable because its common or “the norm” to be the awkward freshman. It is important that students are able to recognize when a tradition is an innocent rite of passage and when they are being violated.