Have you ever been so stunned you could barely speak. I’m over it, but that’s how I felt after reading an article just now from The Buffalo (New York) News. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. Just staggered.
To begin with, the headline speaks of “Hazing Gone Awry” … instead of “Hazing By Rape.” In defense of the newspaper, rape was not the charge. The article explains that three high school varsity athletes are accused of what amounts – in my mind – to anally raping two junior varsity players on a team bus. In New York State, you get 12½ to 25 years for forced intercourse but only 2⅓ to 7 years for forced insertion of a foreign object. Go figure. Could it be that the crime more often perpetrated on one sex is taken many times more seriously than the one more often perpetrated on another? But don’t worry; it was just hazing gone awry.
Not angry yet? OK. Further down, the article explains that, in addition to the students, “Two coaches aboard the bus were charged with endangering the welfare of a child” for failing to intervene. Excuse me? These were the chaperones! Not conspiracy to commit rape? Not even accessory? What kind of court system would let this unconscionable behavior pass for a misdemeanor? “Endangering” is what people have been charged with for cursing in front of a child or driving recklessly with a child on board. Allowing the rape of a child is just “endangering”? Oh my.
Chances are, neither the adults nor the student offenders will get jail time anyway. The reporters did a good job of citing the outcomes of similar cases. Generally, offenders have gotten away with pleading to a reduced charge and doing a little community service. Some will say they shouldn’t go to jail. In fact, the article quotes professor and psychologist Doug P. Jowdy’s opinion that “healing … those responsible for the incident” (whom I would call offenders, but he doesn’t) is more appropriate than their incarceration.
But, if it were possible, it gets even more disturbing the further you read! Susan Lipkin, a psychologist and author is quoted as saying, “There is a tradition to initiate new members on a team, particularly on male athletic teams … It normally involves older team members taking steps to humiliate and demean the boy at the lowest level … The common trend over the past five years or more has been basically to turn a boy into a girl by penetration ... In other words, they get engaged in homosexual play and then they call the victim gay because he’s been sodomized. Ironically, it’s the perpetrators that are committing the homosexual act.”
Where do I start? Let’s begin at the end: “homosexual play”? Since when is rape playful? Who was feeling playful, the haters? One presumes they were feeling, instead, entitled, contemptuous, blood-thirsty and possibly aroused. Or is it the bystanders we should think of as feeling playful? One hopes that at least some of them were feeling nauseated, terrorized, and as helpless as the targeted youths. Were the adults on the bus feeling playful, perhaps? More likely … God, I have no idea what adults who stood by and let this happen could have been feeling. At least the psychologist goes on to point out the irony of the whole equation.
But just as troubling as the rape-as-play concept is the notion that turning a boy into a girl is the worst possible humiliation. Not turning him into a pig or an object. A girl. Could the psychologists and the reporters please give even passing mention to the need to address misogyny starting long before high school, please?
And the equating of female with gay? I know I’m supposed to feel insulted … but as a woman or a gay person? Where are the conversations with students about both “accusations” being compliments, at least according to some families’ values? Have schools in upstate New York been having those conversations this week? Because we need so much more than lectures about the rules. Or even in-depth classes to teach skills for standing up to bullies and to explore the value of breaking a code of silence. We need classes that speak to the awful, ugly prejudices that lead to such horrific acts. Through literature. Through history. Through civics and geography. We need for schools to take on the misogyny and the homophobia that consummate their relationship in rape.
Finally, let’s revisit Dr. Lipkin’s use of the word “tradition.” If this is a tradition, and I agree that it is, then there are victims of last year’s hazing and the year before’s walking among us. Those who have not yet resorted to suicide have undoubtedly begun self-medicating, dropped out, and/or run away to the streets. We need a community commitment to track them down and offer them wrap-around mental health services at no cost. It’s our institutions that allowed – even facilitated -- their being tortured. I suspect most of them have at the very least given up sports, but they are in our homes and in some cases our schools. And still on most teams are the bystanders: a whole lot of young people carrying huge burdens of guilt and shame for not intervening. We need to work towards their healing, to stop the cycle of this incredible “tradition” today.
How will early and meaningful prevention education happen? How will mental health services for targets and bystanders happen? Only with, as Dr. Jowdy suggests, courageous leadership. From the superintendent, the principal and the athletic director. From the school board, the mayor and the governor. From the parents and guardians. From student government and the clergy. And from the prosecutor and the legislature.
One last thing: Wilson High School in upstate New York is hardly unique. This sort of sexual assault in the guise of hazing has happened this year in every state in the union. It usually isn’t held in the light by brave targets and their families or by the press. So thank you to these young men and to Buffalo News reporters Paul Westmoore and Aaron Besecker and their editors.
But considering that it happens in your back yard, too, what are you doing for the walking wounded? And what are you doing to help your staff and students to explore the values that could make your school district (or your state or university) the next home to what someone will call “hazing gone awry”?