Ridgefield teams take proactive approach to prevent hazing

Monday began the high school sports calendar anew, serving as the first day of football conditioning for many schools across Connecticut. The rest follow Friday, and other sports will be back to work for real next week.

For all of those teams, a new class moves up to take leadership roles from those who’ve graduated or departed, and a group of newcomers arrives. The new kids will all be welcomed somehow. Educators here, as pretty much everywhere, want to make sure that initiation doesn’t include hazing.

Hazing still happens. Just last week four players in a Cleveland suburb were charged with rape, sexual battery and hazing, among other counts, for incidents which took place at a college football camp in June, according The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Stories pop up around the state as well. If it perhaps wasn’t hazing itself, a 2015 incident at Seymour High School, in which a former student was arrested on several charges, led to administrative leave for football coach Tom Lennon (since reinstated as a teacher, though no longer coaching) and turmoil for the rest of the coaching staff.

And while issues like addressing the pitfalls of social media and maintaining standards of sportsmanship in the student sections might draw administrators’ attention — and while bullying seems to be a major school-office concern — preventing hazing remains a goal everywhere.

The handbook of the CIAC, the state’s governing body for high school sports, takes a stance against hazing, defining it as “any activity that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers a person’s physical or emotional health for the purpose of initiation or membership in or affiliation with any organization, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.” The organization leaves policy and enforcement, though, up to individual schools.

In the 2019-20 edition of its student handbook, Ridgefield High School lists hazing as a violation of standards and expectations.

“Hazing and/or initiation activities of any type are inconsistent with the educational goals of the Ridgefield Board of Education and Connecticut State Law and are prohibited at all times. Team members are responsible to report any hazing or harassment incidents to their coach and/or the Athletics Director immediately.

“Student Athletes/Team Captains that organize and/or participate in any hazing/initiation activities will be immediately dismissed from the team for the remainder of the season. In addition captains will lose their position as team captain. The school reserves the right to invoke discipline for incidents of serious misconduct that occur off campus and off-season.”

As part of an appendix, the handbook also provides a copy of the Ridgefield Public Schools Hazing Policy.

The policy defines hazing as “an activity that recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health of a student for the purpose of initiation or admission into or affiliation with any organization sanctioned or authorized by the Board of Education.

“No student, teacher, administrator, coach, volunteer, contractor or other employee of the school district shall plan, direct, encourage, aid, engage in, permit, condone or tolerate hazing.

“Any hazing activity upon which the initiation for admission or affiliation with an organization sanctioned or authorized by the Board of Education, directly or indirectly, shall be presumed to be a forced activity, even if the student willingly participates in such activity.”

The hazing policy also lists some of the activities that would classify as endangering the mental or physical health of students, including sexual harassment, prolonged sleep deprivation, forced conduct that could lead to embarrassment, and forced consumption of any food, beverage, drug, or controlled substance.”

Addressing the issue with athletes lets administrators bring up some of the hazing that goes on in professional sports, such as making rookies dress up in potentially embarrassing outfits for a road trip, or dying their hair.

On ESPN’s “Speak For Yourself,” the topic came up last month after New England Patriots first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry learned that he might be subject to a “terrible haircut.”

A panel that included a veteran sports journalist, a former college football player and three former pro athletes talked about hazing, discussing a range of activities and where to draw the line.

“The whole duct tape, butt-naked with the baby powder on the goal post, that was, like, the standard in Buffalo when we were there,” said former Buffalo Bills defensive end Marcellus Wiley.

And then there was sticking Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson with a $32,000 rookie-dinner bill in San Diego. “Now that’s hazing,” the panel seemed to agree.

“‘See something, say something’ has become the call to action before something happens,” said Al Carbone, the commissioner of the Southern Connecticut Conference. “God forbid you’re dealing with something that happened and no one did anything about it.”

Still, incidents can be hard to report, whether from peer pressure or internal pressure. A player being hazed still wants to be part of the team. If a player does come forward, he or she knows there will be repercussions.

Preventing hazing from happening in the first place is the better option.

A search of local high schools’ websites, trying to see if a hazing policy for athletes was easy to find online, found that most did have some sort of handbook, for students or athletes, in an intuitive spot.

The explicit policies within them varied. Some, like Ridgefield’s, had extensive definitions. Others included “hazing” as a one-word item in a long list of prohibited activity.

Trumbull, two decades removed from the revelation of hazing on its wrestling team, had the most-prominent link, bringing up the town board of education’s three-page policy, complete with a student signature form for teams, groups and clubs to confirm that the policy had been explained fully.

In a much-discussed study conducted by Alfred University and published in 2000, 48 percent of high school students said they’d been hazed in some form, half of those in athletics. Of the 48 percent, 43 percent said they were humiliated, with 23 percent subjected to some kind of substance abuse and 29 percent directed to do something that was possibly illegal.

As a result, 71 percent of those students who reported they had been been hazed said that they had suffered some sort of negative consequence. Nearly a quarter were injured. Almost as many missed school or another commitment. A fifth of them hurt someone else.

The survey made a clear distinction between hazing and positive initiations: team trips, ropes courses, team banquets, team roasts, or skit nights. But even some of those activities could backfire.

“I believe very strongly there is a line, something as innocent as a team saying ‘freshmen, you have to carry all the equipment,’ ” said Dave Johnson, the commissioner of the South-West Conference and a former coach and athletic director at Bunnell High School in Stratford. “Is that hazing? No. Is it the type of behavior you want on a team? Absolutely not.”

When Johnson was coaching cross country, he divided the team into groups of four, with the groups made up of one runner from each class. At the first meet, Group A loaded and unloaded the bus. Group B did it in the next time.

“You’ve seen a senior captain at the end of the game turn around and yell ‘freshmen, you’ve got the equipment.’ You’ve also got a senior captain who says, ‘freshmen, come with me,’ ” said Johnson. “Underclassmen see a senior picking up the field and getting water on the bus.

“It’s a little thing,” added Johnson, “but it’s huge.”

Ridgefield Press Sports Editor Tim Murphy contributed reporting to this story.