Last year, I wrote an editorial in my high school newspaper, The New Trier News, about being careful to immediately do away with all initiations and rituals for high school sports programs and club activities because of a hazing incident at nearby Maine West High School. Later in the year, I was invited onto The Afternoon Shift, a talk show on Chicago’s NPR Affiliate, to talk about what I had written (link to the audio is here, or you can just click on the embed below). As the 2012-2013 school year now wraps up for high schools around the country, I want to use this space to re-run the editorial I wrote to shed some light on the issue in a downtime for high school sports and clubs. While this piece is specifically about the high school I attended, it could easily apply to any public high school in the country. Below is an embed of the radio segment followed by my editorial. 

In the wake of incidents both here at New Trier and at Maine West High School, Miss Anne James-Noonan, the performing arts coordinator, sent out an email to parents describing appropriate and inappropriate behavior for sports and extracurricular underclassmen initiations.

In the email, James-Noonan asserted that many standard initiation practices of athletic teams and other extracurricular activities are “hazing,” which New Trier’s 2012-2013 guidebook defines as “harassing, intimidating conduct, or bullying, whether verbal, physical, or visual, that affects the tangible benefits of education, that unreasonably interferes with a student’s educational performance, or that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment.” I vehemently disagree with the administration’s stance on this issue.

There is an important distinction between “initiation” and “hazing.” Initiation is the process of welcoming underclassmen to a sport or activity, frequently through a previously established tradition. The New Trier administration seems to think that any form of freshman initiation that doesn’t involve sitting in a circle and holding hands is suddenly hazing.

The main activities in question with NT Principal Timothy Dohrer were the “kidnapping” of underclassmen at early morning hours and making underclassmen wear “We love our seniors” t-shirts. Beginning with the kidnapping, that certainly does not affect the “tangible effects of education” nor does it interfere with students’ educational performance. In addition, this practice is certainly not nearly as intimidating as Dohrer makes it out to be—is being surprisingly picked up and taken to breakfast by your teammates a hostile experience? More importantly, the athletes actually call the underclassmen’s parents to make sure it’s alright with them beforehand. Apparently, parents are endorsing the “hazing” of their own children now.

Secondly, “We love our seniors” t-shirts are in no way meant to assert control over underclassmen. As seniors are the leaders of the team, underclassmen should look up to them. The t-shirts are merely a standard rite of passage on many sports teams.

In his interview with The New Trier News, Dohrer stated, “Initiations do not make students feel comfortable or included.” I don’t know whether or not he participated in athletics as a high school student, but I was a high school athlete and I strongly disagree. Initiation is almost always a fun activity for all parties involved and not mean in nature. While the principal says that activities such as carbo-fests the night before games can substitute for initiation, he misses the point that carbo-fests are standard in-season bonding experiences to strengthen the bonds already created by these preseason initiations. They are meant to complement one another.

I realize this is a sensitive issue and that these initiations can be taken too far at times and truly become hazing. True hazing creates lasting physical or emotional pain and this is inexcusable in any instance, including freshman initiations. What happened at Maine West is unfortunate and reprehensible. However, having freshmen wear “We love our seniors” t-shirts is simply not a traumatic experience for them, no matter how the administrations tries to spin it as a “power play for seniors.”

This is high school and emotionally-scarring hazing happens. The administration should be focusing their efforts on preventing real hazing, not harmless initiation activities to welcome athletes to their teams and participants to their extracurricular activities. While I certainly appreciate an effort from the administration to stop hazing and make New Trier a safe learning environment, they’re looking in the wrong places and need to rethink their approach.