After hazing, one high school's story

January 8, 2013

Suburban Maine West High School is working through the school year under a cloud of outside investigation and internal questions around allegations of hazing on some of its sports teams.

Those questions include what the school staff knew about the alleged hazing and whether enough was done to stop it.

Ten years ago, another suburban Chicago high school saw a tradition take a turn for the worse—prompting many of the same questions.

WBEZ’s Becky Vevea spoke with school leaders at Glenbrook North High School about how they’ve worked to rebuild.

“The story is powerfully recorded on video tape,” Paula Zahn said at the beginning of a CNN report. It was 2003 and YouTube didn’t even exist.

Still, the images made national headlines, girls in yellow jerseys throwing paint, mud and grime at another group sitting in a circle. It was a tradition gone wrong. The junior girls versus senior girls in what was supposed to be a powder puff football game.

It rocked the Northbrook community and left a stubborn mark on the school.

“People were like, ‘Oh you went to Glenbrook North, like, that’s the hazing school.’ That’s how everyone had heard about it,” said Marly Schuman, a 2006 Glenbrook North graduate. I went to journalism school with Schuman and met her for coffee recently.

Even when she moved away to college, she tells me the hazing is what people knew about. Not Glenbrook’s great academics or the championship basketball program or the decorated debate team.

It’s now been a decade since the news trucks left and the messy lawsuits were settled.

School leaders say in some ways they’ve become a stronger school and community –but they say that’s because they confronted hazing head on.

“Our realization was everyone in the community contributes to what we are, and for what this high school is,” said Mike Riggle, superintendent of the Glenbrooks. He was principal of Glenbrook North in 2003.

Riggle says administrators and teachers scrutinized school culture. They eliminated any club that didn’t have an official advisor, banned the tradition of “toilet-papering” houses, and wouldn’t allow any negative chanting or cheering at games.

“What we wanted to do is to make sure that the groups that were formed here were strong, healthy, vibrant, but any initiation or ritual that they had as part of their function was positive and healthy,” Riggle said.

They launched all-school workshops to bring students together. Recently, one of those workshops morphed into a regular event called Spartans Connect. Ryan Bretag is a technology coordinator at Glenbrook North and he helps organize it.

It’s a day, Bretag said, designed almost like a professional conference, where kids have a chance to take classes like yoga and Harry Potterology. The idea is to get them outside those cliquey teenage comfort zones.

But Bretag said the event alone isn’t a cure-all, because at the end of the day, like anything in education, the work is never done.

“Every year you have, 400 or 500 new students coming in, so it’s not just changing it, it’s growing it,” said Bretag. “It’s possible that something could happen, but our focus of being aware is much sharper.”

School culture is a difficult thing to change—in any school—and it only takes a day or a single group to derail it. Even in inner city Chicago, schools grapple with creating a healthy school climate and are constantly challenged by violence and poverty.

But it’s a challenge also for a place like Glenbrook North or other suburban schools, in part because those communities are so deeply invested in the public schools and play a big role in setting the tone academically, athletically, and culturally.

In countless hazing cases, often the first question asked is what the school knew about what was going on. But schools find themselves in a muddy place when it comes to bullying and hazing, especially in today’s digital world, where they have to be aware of more than just what goes on inside the walls of the school. 

Administrators can get flak for making change, like Glenbrook did when it tried to ban toilet-papering. After all, everyone does it and what’s the harm in draping toilet paper over other people’s trees?
That kind of resistance is not unusual, according to Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and expert in hazing and bullying.

“These traditions, like Freshman Friday, often are integrated not only into the school, but into the community,” Lipkins said. “And oftentimes parents do know what’s going on and they often have experienced it themselves and they feel like it’s not so bad, it’s a learning experience, it’s fun, boys will be boys, it’s going to make you tougher. And so they consciously and unconsciously support the hazing.”

Lipkins said hazing happens everywhere in society, even in the workplace, where there’s a pecking order and the new workers get jobs no one else wants to do.

It’s common for teenagers to model that behavior, she added, but in an increasingly competitive culture, where academic, professional and athletic performance reigns, it can morph into something more harmful and abusive. 

“Everybody feels that pressure to compete and excel, the students, the teachers, the administration, the parents, and we need to stop, take a deep breath and look at our culture and say what are we doing?” Lipkins said. “And what are the effects of this kind of competition?”

As Glenbrook found, the effects of competition and “seniority” getting out of control, can be damaging for a long time.

“This fall we were in a presentation, we were talking about school climate and the example that they used was the hazing that occurred here, in 2003, nine years ago,” said Paul Pryma, Glenbrook North’s current principal. “There have been thousands of other examples, that’s one that has kind of been etched and it hurts us each time that that comes up. Because in our minds, we’ve addressed it, we’re continuing to evolve, and yet every once and a while you’re reminded on a Google search or whatever it might be something that caused a lot of pain.”

For Maine West High School, that reality may only be beginning to sink in.