Concerned school officials have reacted swiftly following publication of an article on high-school hazing, which described teenage athletes getting dropped on the ribs and being forced to eat a hot dog rolled in chewing tobacco, among other abuses.
The article by Palo Alto High School junior Peter Johnson was published last week in The Viking, a printed sports magazine, and the Paly Voice, an online news site. See article at http://voice.paly.net/view_story.php?id=6064
Hazing is defined as any sort of initiation into a student group likely to cause physical or mental harm, according to California educational code.
The danger of hazing became widely publicized after the 2005 death of Chico State fraternity initiate who was forced to drink a massive amount of water and do push-ups in freezing wet clothing until his heart failed. His death led to a 2006 bill that made hazing a felony in California.
Paly Principal Jacquie McEvoy met with Paly's Athletic Director and football Head Coach Earl Hansen last week to discuss teaching athletes about hazing's detriment, she said.
Since hazing is already an offense punishable with suspension, outreach to students — rather than a change in penalties — is needed, she said.
On Monday she released a letter to students for publication on the Paly Voice website and in the Camanile, the school's newspaper. See statement at http://voice.paly.net/view_story.php?id=6084
She thanked Johnson, Viking staff and athletes quoted in the article for "courage" and breaking the "code of silence."
Getting rid of hazing will be a team effort requiring, "coaches, the team captains, the student athletes, and their parents," the letter stated.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly also took action, meeting with McEvoy and Hansen multiple times since the article's publication, he said.
They discussed what to put in the response message and ways to teach kids to identify and report hazing, he said.
Skelly also e-mailed school-board members and declared the district must "redouble its efforts" to set boundaries for student behavior.
The district may create a specific anti-hazing policy in addition to the more general statewide educational code, he told the Weekly.
But increasing awareness of those close to sports teams — including parents — is also crucial, he said.
"I think we need to get the coaches and team captains involved because those issues took place off campus. They were at somebody's house. There were parents there," he said.
Perhaps because of its taboo nature, participants cited in Johnson's article said many activities took place off campus and out-of-sight — but some occurred in locker rooms.
Johnson said he spoke to at least two eyewitnesses to confirm all hazing incidents.
He said the article was originally slated to be a short piece before his reporting uncovered a larger pattern of hazing, something that surprised the varsity soccer player.
The student body was also taken aback, he said.
"Generally people have been pretty surprised at some of the stuff we've uncovered," he said.
Hazing is particularly entrenched in the football and wrestling teams, where players endure physical abuse such as beatings with paddles or eating repulsive foods, the article states.
But the article overstates the abuse, said a football player who witnessed an incident portrayed by the article.
"The way it was described in the paper wasn't really the way it went down," he said, citing a description of a player forced to eat a cake topped with a thick layer of pubic hair.
"It was only one hair [in the cake," he said, noting he had never been hazed.
There are team-building activities that may be silly or embarrassing but not harmful, Skelly said.
He cited a basketball-team event of wearing funny outfits to school in which his daughter participated.
Yet communities where serious hazing takes place never fully recover, he said.
In the Southern California district of Poway, where Skelly previously worked, people were still disturbed by a years-old incident in which a teammate had a broom handle inserted into his rectum, he said.