Hazing scandals at Maine West and Hoffman Estates high schools have shone a light on an age-old problem that has only gotten worse with time, some experts say.
Hazing in schools has been around for as long as there have been cliques, groups or clubs worth joining. Some experts call it a culture of sickness that gets passed down through generations by the abusers, and often the victims themselves.
"A lot of hazing actually begins in high school," says psychologist Susan Lipkins, a leading expert on hazing, who specializes in campus conflict and violence in high schools and colleges. "It's the first time that the clubs and sports really count, and there's a hierarchy and a pecking order."
With emphasis on competition and differentiation of abilities, there's also a rise in aggression among high schoolers, says Lipkins, who has a private practice in Port Washington, N.Y., and is the author of "Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment and Humiliation."
"It's a process based on a tradition used by groups to maintain the hierarchy or to discipline, and regardless of consent, the activities themselves are either physically or psychologically potentially harmful," Lipkins said. "It goes on everywhere, and I guarantee you it's been going on for more than a few years (at Maine West)."
The Cook County state's attorney's office is investigating accusations of hazing at Maine West in Des Plaines going back to 2007.
The families of four current or former students have filed lawsuits against Maine Township High School District 207, Maine West, its administrators, coaches and staff. Plaintiffs include two boys who say they were assaulted and sodomized by senior members of the varsity boys soccer team on campus in September, as well as a 2007 freshman member of the varsity soccer team and a 2008 freshman baseball player, who also say they were assaulted.
Five juveniles have been petitioned to court on misdemeanor battery charges stemming from claims of hazing in September, as has a sixth juvenile in connection with allegations of an attack during a summer soccer camp, according to Des Plaines police.
No charges have been filed in the Hoffman Estates High School hazing, which involved members of the varsity basketball team and took place off campus without the knowledge of coaches. School officials there say the event did not rise to the level of sexual misconduct. The team forfeited three basketball games as punishment.
Both school districts now are undergoing anti-hazing training for students and staff.
Lipkins said one of the hallmarks of hazing is that there's a code of silence.
"Once the group starts to haze, they actually give cover stories to the kids to tell authorities in case they get caught," she said. "They may not recognize it as hazing, but they know it's not right."
A culture of fear
What perpetuates the idea that hazing is acceptable behavior is that most adults have gone through some form of hazing in high school, Lipkins said.
"Sometimes, it's so embedded in the culture that the parents actually support it," Lipkins said.
Parents may even urge their kids to toughen up and just deal with it as a rite of passage, sanctioning traditions like "Freshman Friday," where upperclassmen scare incoming freshmen at the beginning of the year through a series of pranks, such as kidnapping them in the middle of the night, beating them up, or making them servants for a day, Lipkins said.
Unlike bullying, hazing is a planned process that extends beyond an act of harassment, and holds out the reward of acceptance into the group, Lipkins said.
The blueprint of hazing often starts with students getting hazed as freshmen, then becoming bystanders the following year, and ultimately participating in the act themselves by the time they are juniors and seniors.
"You feel like you have the right and the duty to do unto others what was done to you, to pass on that tradition," Lipkins said. "Most of the kids who have been hazed will haze, and they will then take that with them to high school, to college, the military or the workplace. More kids are ready to be hazed when they get to college than they are to write a term paper."
One expert says hazing is more common among boys than girls in high school.
According to Lipkins' research of hazings reported in the news media, 50 percent of cases involved sexual assaults, a majority of which was sodomy. Hazings were more severe among boys on athletic teams as compared to girls sports and other extracurricular activities.
"With each hazing, the perpetrators want to (add) their own mark, (getting) more aggressive, more sexual, more humiliating," she said. "But after a decade, that becomes a lot, and that's how it gets worse and worse."
Trauma of hazing
While it's hard to pinpoint how widespread the problem is, more and more cases of hazing involving high school athletic teams and other youth groups are being reported, said Mark Parr, executive director of Hoffman Estates-based Children's Advocacy Center of North and Northwest Cook County.
The agency works with the Department of Children and Family Services, law enforcement, the state's attorney's office and advocacy groups to minimize the trauma of the investigative process and ensure proper follow up is offered to families and children who are victims of sexual abuse.
"Every child, whether it's a hazing incident or sexual abuse incident, is different, so how it's going to affect them is going to be different depending on their past experience," Parr said. "You see a lack of self confidence, trust, hyper vigilance, a sense of humiliation, being degraded and what that does to somebody's sense of worth."
Most victims value being a member of a sports team more than wanting to address the trauma, he added.
"The pressures on kids generally to fit in, to be viewed positively, and be part of the group are huge," Parr said. "It's hard to speak out."
In some cases, victims of hazing may end up quitting the sports they really enjoy or transferring to another school to get away from the memory of the abuse, he added.
"Similar to other kinds of abusive situations, if that's getting internalized, kids think, 'there's something wrong with me,'" Parr said. "'That I somehow let it happen.' Part of the healing is correcting any of those kinds of negative thoughts about themselves, and then a lot of it is ensuring that they have ways to cope with those feelings."
Another major part of the healing process is teaching kids how to keep themselves safe, take action and recognize people and authority figures they can trust, Parr said.
Kids who are believed and protected right from the beginning have a much better prognosis of healing. But when their concerns are brushed aside, "it's another kind of trauma for them that nobody did anything about this," Parr said.
Why boys haze
Traditional definitions of masculinity in athletics have a lot to do with the prevalence of hazing in men's sports, says Janice Collins, assistant professor of journalism and women's studies at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
Collins researches gender equality, and the development of leadership, power and self-esteem and how to demarginalize victims of bullying/hazing.
"Hazing is seen in some forms of organized sports as an indoctrination into the club," Collins said. The idea is that "we must break you down in order for you to be accepted in our culture," she added.
"Everyone wants to be part of the 'in' group," Collins said. "We see that not just in high school, but in pro football, hockey. It is all over. It's in every sect in society."
Collins said the breeding ground for hazing can begin in someone's home if there is abuse or in elementary school where kids often face bullying, and is reinforced by the music kids listen to and by messages in popular media.
"These children are learning on YouTube, the Internet and on television that if you beat someone up, you can be a star for a day," Collins said. "It's in every sport, every classroom, and not just athletes. It's a bullying culture that we are developing."
What should be done
Yet, the larger question is not why hazing occurs, but rather what is being done to educate kids before it reaches the level of a criminal act.
The Illinois High School Association, which regulates high school athletic events, does not have a standard policy on how to handle hazing because it doesn't affect another school, said Matt Troha, the group's assistant executive director.
"Our principals have never really wanted rules in there for that," he said. "That would come down to each district and their individual policies."
School districts always have handled the issue internally through anti-hazing policies outlined in student handbooks and as part of the code of conduct for sportsmanship, he added.
Some experts say not enough is being done by school districts to educate their staff and students about hazing and to ensure that the proper deterrents and punishments exist.
"Most schools are reactive," Lipkins said. "Once there's a hazing incident, then they start the hazing education program. For the most part, the consequences are not severe, not widespread."
In Maine West's case, soccer coaches Michael Divincenzo and Emilio Rodriguez have been banned from campus and relieved of their coaching duties while the matter is investigated. Three part-time coaches have been reassigned with pay. District leadership has said it will not hesitate to fire coaches if warranted after the investigation concludes.
District 207 also is requiring all students and coaches to sign an anti-hazing pledge as part of their participation in sports, clubs, or activities. The district plans to begin additional staff training to ensure employees are aware of mandated reporting duties, and is launching a hotline for students to be able to report bullying and hazing.
Lipkins said education about hazing should begin as early as eighth grade and be reinforced in 12th grade before students graduate, but that is not typically done.
Collins said some continue to argue that there's a form of hazing that is healthy.
"That's the dilemma, because everyone gets teased," she said. "When it comes to the point of emotional, psychological and physical harm, that's when it's obvious. That line has to be drawn, and we are drawing that line little by little."