Editorial: Hazing settlement must be cautionary tale for suburban schools

News that Maine West High School District 207 settled a high-profile lawsuit involving past allegations of hazing and assault involving members of its boys soccer team arrived quietly, nearly lost in the election of a president.

But it should have landed with a very loud thud in suburban school districts because of the chilling warning it sends - prevent hazing and bullying from infecting your sports teams and student organizations.

Maine West's case is a disturbing, embarrassing and expensive cautionary tale for every teacher, coach and administrator.

The penalty was a $1 million settlement - $200,000 paid to each of five former Maine West students - that ends nearly four years of litigation over claims the students were victims of hazing rituals conducted by older members of the boys soccer team. Among the allegations was a complaint that one student was sexually assaulted by fellow soccer players on school property.

The case started with allegations of hazing of two freshmen players by members of the varsity team in September 2012 and led to the discovery of a practice of hazing going back to 2007. Defendants in the lawsuit included the school, District 207 and several coaches.

But the fallout goes beyond money. Coaches lost jobs, emotional damage was done and reputations were soiled.

Sadly, it's not an isolated case. Over the years, there have been others at prominent and respected suburban schools. Hazing has included physical restraint, hair-cutting, splashing victims with urine, punching and groping, and, yes, sexual assault.

Even today, police are investigating reports of "inappropriate activity" by Lake Zurich High School football players in the school locker room. A letter sent by school district administrators to players and their parents, noted "egregious" behavior, warranting discipline. No details have been released about what happened, but the letter included several references to hazing.

The district required students to sign a behavior agreement that outlined conditions for remaining part of the team that included requiring parents and students to attend a workshop on positive decision making and hazing prevention, requiring students to complete an online course on hazing and requiring them to work in groups to prepare a presentation for middle school students on the consequences of bullying and hazing.

Perhaps a more encouraging approach would be for schools everywhere to put such pledges into action before hazing occurs. Emphasize the message throughout the year with discussions and presentations that involve students, coaches and parents. Make it part of the culture.

It's that important. School officials must ensure hazing and bullying never have a place in any school, any team, any organization.

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