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posted: 12/12/2012 9:45 AM

Editorial: Key lesson of scandals: Hazing is never acceptable

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As a brief history of hazing examples published in Monday's Daily Herald shows, incidents of hazing like those at Maine West and Hoffman Estates high schools are neither new nor isolated. Nor are they benign. They've involved behaviors ranging from slapping victims until their bellies turn red with welts to sexual assault. They've occurred across the suburbs from Crystal Lake to Hinsdale. And they've occurred for decades.

Unfortunately, these latter facts have too often become the grounds for accepting the first. "Initiation rites" are common everywhere, some will say, and they have been a part of culture practically since the beginning of culture. These extreme cases are just sensational exceptions.

Well, they are certainly sensational. But the degree to which they are exceptions may be a simple function of, if not pure self-delusion on all our parts, the rarity of perpetrators getting caught or of victims complaining.

Rituals that hurt or humiliate do not strengthen any organization, and they are not acceptable. In both the Hoffman Estates and the Maine West situations, school district responses appear to recognize this, but the situations that led to the controversies provide an opportunity for serious reflection on leadership.

At the source, these cases involve team leaders -- experienced juniors and seniors who ought to be setting the tones for their organizations -- who forfeited their judgment, or lacked it in the first place, in the apparent exhilaration of humiliating a smaller, weaker subordinate. But high school students can be understood, if not excused, for their inexperience and youth. What is much harder to fathom are coaches and other adults who foster or tolerate an environment in which young people can get so far out of hand.

In the case of Maine Township High School District 207, which admittedly is far different from that at HEHS in terms of both severity and duration, administrators apparently share that consternation, having demoted some coaches and banned them from school premises until an investigation is complete. And, the district's plans to require more training and anti-hazing pledges are certainly positive steps.

But pledges and training have value only if the parties involved buy in and adhere to them. One of the key assignments for coaches and advisers for all extracurriculars, from the chess club to the marching band, is to help develop strong character in the young people in their charge. Leaders who fail to model high standards of character and who countenance or even encourage unsavory behaviors demean the organization they represent and the young people who look up to them.

The concept of "hazing" may have been around since the beginning of organized human activities, but in the 21st century, we know very well that harming and humiliating others in the name of team building is both unproductive and inhumane. Those who endure it must understand that reporting their abuse is not disloyalty, and those who might be inclined to excuse it need to think again or find other work. Hazing is not a quaint tradition, it is not harmless and it is not acceptable. Those should be bedrock principles for any team participant or leader, especially at the youth and high school levels.

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