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updated: 5/23/2013 12:15 AM

Des Plaines forum stresses vigilance against hazing

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A community forum on hazing and bullying held Wednesday night in Des Plaines in response to the hazing of soccer players last September at Maine West High School drew a sparse audience of fewer than 50 local residents but prompted a surprise appearance by activists on the issue from Indiana and Georgia.

"I didn't come to speak," said Pam Champion, the mother of Robert Champion, a Florida A&M band student who died after being beaten in a hazing ritual. "Any school that tells you that they have everything under control, they're lying."

She said she flew up to the meeting after hearing about it from Karla Hunt of Munster, Ind., who said her son, a swimmer at Munster High School, was repeatedly hazed over an 18-month period. Hunt said that she didn't learn of the hazing for over a year, and when she first went to school officials and police, they minimized the behavior.

Their comments reinforced the messages of speakers at the event that hazing often remains hidden and that parents, teaches, coaches, administrators and police all have to be vigilant in watching for signs of it.

"We know that it builds over time," said Gina Lee-Olukoya, associate dean of students at the University of Illinois, who has done hazing research and works with the school's fraternities and sororities. "We know it happens at the high school level. It grows up and goes to college. ... We have a lot of work to do to dig it out."

B. Elliot Hopkins, director of the National Federation of State High School Associations Student Leadership Conference, said students are reluctant to come forward. "Young people want to be a part of something. No one wants to be the odd man out," Hopkins said.

People at the top do set the tone though, Hopkins said. If the head of a school district tells the athletic director he will be fired if there's hazing, that message will filter down.

Maine Township High School District 207 Superintendent Ken Wallace, who was an athlete and a coach, said that while the events at Maine West were "reprehensible" and there's "no way to undo what happened" to the students and their families, they weren't representative of the experiences of thousands of students. And he said he believed the district "did respond very well" once it realized what was happening.

"I certainly hope never, ever to have anything like this happen again," Wallace said.

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