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updated: 3/4/2013 5:13 AM

How to change a culture of hazing in schools

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  • Maine West in Des Plaines is one of the three Maine Township High School District 207 schools that will be conducting focus groups this month with a consultant hired to address hazing and bullying.

      Maine West in Des Plaines is one of the three Maine Township High School District 207 schools that will be conducting focus groups this month with a consultant hired to address hazing and bullying.
    COURTESY OF ABC 7

 
 

Changing a culture of hazing in schools takes more than the mere adoption of anti-bullying policies or having students take pledges.

It requires making the school environment not just physically but emotionally safer, says Rick Phillips, founder and executive director of Community Matters, a California-based consulting company that will be leading focus groups at the three Maine Township High School District 207 schools this spring.

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The district hired the firm after hazing allegations at Maine West High School in Des Plaines led to the firing earlier this year of two soccer coaches and criminal charges against six athletes.

Senior members of the varsity boys soccer team are accused of assaulting and sodomizing underclassmen as part of team initiation rituals. Six Maine West varsity boys soccer players initially were charged with misdemeanor battery on allegations they hazed younger teammates in separate attacks in September, and during a soccer camp last summer. The Cook County state's attorney's office is reviewing the charges and investigating accusations of hazing at Maine West going back to 2007.

The families of four current or former students are suing District 207, Maine West, the school's principal and the two fired coaches.

It's the latest in a long list of hazing scandals at suburban schools in the past decade.

"You can create policies, practices. You can have cameras, protocols. You can even have security personnel. But unless you have personnel in every place that kids go, which you can't … (schools) have to try to develop (students') social capacity and social norms to protect each other," Phillips said. "That's where we've got to rely on the character and the ethics of our children. Policies don't go into bathrooms, Facebook. This idea of bullying and hazing, it's younger today, it's meaner, and it's more pervasive."

How do you make a school emotionally safer and change the culture and climate from inside out?

Phillips said punishment and punitive measures go only so far. Zero-tolerance policies on bullying implemented after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre haven't really worked, he said.

"Zero tolerance is kind of a show," Phillips said. "It's expensive to suspend and expel (students), and it's time-consuming to process all of those kids. As a nation, we've tried to legislate civility. We've attempted certainly to punish students into being kinder. That's not a very effective strategy to changing behavior."

Peer courts and rehabilitative measures such as community service work to an extent. Schools need to constantly reassess and improve their disciplinary policies and how they are meted out, Phillips said.

Students and teachers alike need to perceive and believe that it's their responsibility to intervene to protect each other. And they need to be given the tools, training, support and encouragement to adopt that attitude, he said.

"There has to be a social will and a commitment on the part of the community to say our commitment is protecting our children," Phillips said.

That's where Community Matters comes in. The 17-year-old educational nonprofit serves more than 1,000 public schools in 31 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, Guam and Canada.

"Our mission is to wake up the courage of youth and adults to speak up when they see intolerance or incivility in the form of bullying and hazing," Phillips said. "We then design and deliver a variety of services that do that."

Empower students

Experts agree that high school-age students need to feel empowered to help themselves and therefore need to be made part of the solution when it comes to fighting hazing.

That's a different approach to how schools deal with bullying at the elementary and middle-school level, says Mia Doces, bullying prevention expert for the Committee for Children, a national not-for-profit organization.

"There's something unique about high schools, developmentally," Doces said. "It's really important that the school has a lot of buy-in from the kids themselves at the high school level. They need to take more responsibility. With the much younger students, the onus really falls on the adults to create that environment."

Doces said there is more funding for programs teaching positive social skills and how to deal with bullying in grade school than in high school.

"They (high schools) are not really set up to have curriculum that helps kids with social and emotional competency because it's more focused on academics," Doces said.

There's also research that suggests high school-age students don't believe that what they are experiencing is bullying and tend to reduce the significance of relational aggression to "drama," she said.

"Some of these problems have their roots in things like gender stereotyping," Doces said, adding that schools with gay-straight alliances fare better in terms of having a safe environment than those that don't.

It takes a community

Getting buy-in from the entire school community -- which includes staff, students, parents, even local businesses -- is key to creating a safe school environment, Phillips said.

Educators also have to be trained to become better at noticing problems, intervening and providing supportive services.

While most people comprehend the traditional, physical type of hazing, it's harder to catch other types of harassment that are relational and emotional, such as gossip, rumors, name calling, racial slurs, homophobic epithets, and electronic bullying.

"All schools are behind the curve. They have not yet caught up and learned how to respond effectively," Phillips said.

Changing archaic stereotypes embedded in athletic culture is one of the challenging areas of anti-hazing education.

Phillips said athletes and coaches need special training on empathy and confidence to help them understand it's their role to look out for each other.

"We've changed the smoking culture. We've changed the people who didn't believe in seat belts. Over time, we can change the norms," he said.

Phillips said schools are too busy chasing academic requirements and meeting educational mandates such as testing, physical safety and graduation rates, but they fail to recognize how much the climate of a school can affect student performance.

Focus groups will convene at the three Maine high schools March 18-20. Through interviews and surveys with parents, students and staff members, the consultant will look at the relationships between the people within the school, and also outside it, between staffers and students' families and surrounding communities.

"We're kind of going under the hood and we're looking at their climate at Maine West," Phillips said. "It's part of an ongoing process to really understand, extract concerns, knowledge, feelings. We look at the discipline records of the school, suspension rates. And then, we look at their policies. How are the policies formed? Who participated in shaping them?"

After analyzing the results, the consultant will make a series of recommendations to the District 207 school board by May 1.

"Then it will be the responsibility of the community and the schools to implement what they believe is the right thing to do to work toward excellence," Phillips said.

Schools that have successfully changed their climate have practices such as "hall-friendly adults," which involves teachers and principals being visible in the hallways, talking to kids before and after school, and smiling, noticing and intervening during breaks, Phillips said.

"The relationship and trust mean a lot to kids," Phillips said. "A school that's really committed to that hall-friendly, restorative practice makes sure they engage and provide opportunities for marginalized students."

Such schools also report fewer suspensions, fewer incidents of bullying, and better attendance by chronically truant students.

Another strategy is increasing stakeholder input on policies, which students and staffers are more likely to follow if they have a hand in creating them. Continued training of adults to better understand youth culture also is a must as students and their problems evolve.

"But without that investment, we are often left doing the triage," Phillips said. "I applaud Maine 207 to take an incident and want to understand the climate and culture. That takes a degree of leadership and social will."

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