Hazing by a California soccer team: Where does fun become abuse?

Hazing involving sexual abuse on a California soccer team is an extreme case. But one study found that 9 out of 10 students who have experienced hazing in college did not consider themselves to be hazed. Hazing can be banal to gross to violent – where do we draw the line?

Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/AP
A hazing incident at La Puente (Calif.) High School has resulted in the arrest of four students and the suspension-with-pay of one teacher-coach.

The accusations from California this week that players on a Los Angeles-area high school soccer team had sexually assaulted younger teammates as part of a hazing initiation has garnered a nationwide gasp.

Local families have protested, a lawsuit has been filed, and news commentators have spent the better part of the week wringing their hands and voicing outrage. How, goes the regular refrain, could such a thing happen?

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And sure, the case from La Puente High School is extreme. According to the allegations, as many as 10 older students assaulted freshman players in a room next to the coach’s office. Some alleged victims even claim that the coach, who has been placed on administrative leave, helped lure the younger students to the hazing.

This level of abuse is perhaps unusual. But “hazing” overall – from the banal to the gross to the violent – is not.

In 2008, a National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention survey of 11,482 post-secondary students found that 47 percent experienced hazing before coming to college. Within college, researchers found, 55 percent of students involved in clubs, teams and organizations experience hazing. And these aren’t just jocks or freshmen rushing fraternities. Hazing takes place for students joining everything from the marching band to the young Republicans, researchers say.

And a good quarter of these initiations – which regularly involve some combination of alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep-deprivation and sex acts – take place in public space.

“Hazing is not the well-kept secret many believe it to be,” researchers wrote. “This study shows that hazing happens in view of adults in the school community.”

But ... then what? 

Turns out that hazing, like bullying, is one of those squishy topics for school administrators, students, and parents.

Researchers with the 2008 study, which was led by professors from the University of Maine, have a slew of recommendations for schools and parents to reduce hazing, from differentiating “hazing” from “bullying” in school policies, to minimizing the extent that older students are privileged within the school environment, to making sure that incidents of hazing are dealt with firmly.

In a number of ways, anti-hazing advocates take a similar approach as the anti-bullying advocates, in broadening the definition of the offense, suggesting community education and requiring more official policies and reactions.
But perhaps even more so than bullying, the question of what’s “hazing” – and what’s a good old practical joke, or even team-building fun – can come down to perception. 

At the extremes, this line isn’t necessarily hard to figure out. Forcing someone joining a group to drink until he passes out: clearly hazing, clearly problematic. (And super dangerous. Although numbers are contested, researchers point to numerous cases of alcohol-related deaths that were caused by hazing.)

Incidents such as the one that made the papers here in my little home town, where high school basketball players made younger members play a “game” that involved bodily fluids on a biscuit (eewwww); also clearly initiation rituals gone terribly wrong.

But the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention describes hazing as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” 

But who’s to say a behavior is “humiliating” instead of “silly?” 

Anti-hazing advocates say that just doesn’t matter.

Still, the hazing “victims” themselves disagree.

In that 2008 study, researchers found that “nine out of ten students who have experienced hazing behavior in college did not consider themselves to be hazed.”

That’s a pretty wacky statistic, if you think about it.

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Does that mean that the students are unaware? Naive? Not recognizing that if you OK one set of initiation behaviors, the dangerous ones are sure to be accepted, too?

Or maybe it is an indication that it is problematic to regulate judgment, common sense, and kindness with rules and institutional policies.

Meanwhile, in California, four students have been arrested and detectives are investigating.

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