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Friday, October 17, 2014

New Jersey high school bullying incident shows we still have a long way to go…

We have written here over the years about our concerns around bullying and hazing.  The attitude that creates that bullying mindset still seems to exist in the high school and youth sports culture.

A recent series of stories in the U.S. national media (here is a link to a story on ESPN) revealed that a decision was made to cancel the football season of a prominent local high school in New Jersey as a result of an investigation into bullying behaviour.

Sadly, too many still cling to the notion that sports is its own world, and does not have to adhere to the moral and ethical codes that the rest of society adopts.  How often have we heard phrases like “boys will be boys” as though that makes terrible behaviour acceptable?

Similarly, for generations youngsters have actually been encouraged by some adults to believe in the maxim, “What’s said or done in the locker room, stays in the locker room”.  In other words, there is a clear threat that if you want to be part of “the club”, you have to set aside personal ethics and norms of behaviour and not only tolerate but say nothing about behaviour that is, in some cases, morally bankrupt.

The added kicker is this:  if a young person witnesses or experiences hazing or bullying in a sports environment, they are not supposed to report it, because that breaks the old “code” cited above: that the “team” and the locker room is a brotherhood and everyone sticks together.

How many times are frightened young people put in a situation where they are abused and then threatened and told by their peers not to say anything? If the young person “tells”, they will be shunned or harassed by teammates.  If they don’t “talk”, they inadvertently cover up behaviour that should be revealed so those in authority can deal with the situation properly.

It’s unfair and intolerable that these youngsters are made to feel they are doing the wrong thing by reporting what they know to adults.

When it comes to intimidation, hazing, threats and bullying, the idea that “what is said and done here, stays here” is wrong-headed. That thinking—and that type of behaviour—was never acceptable and should never have been tolerated.

Ironically, we are sickened when we hear about professional athletes (e.g. Ray Rice) acting in a manner that is violent, harmful and unacceptable on any level.

Yet where does that kind of behaviour begin? 

Often times it is in a world where young athletes are treated as “better than” because of their athletic skill.  They have a sense of entitlement. They believe that they are above consequences for their behaviour. These youngsters are made to feel they are better than everyone else and can do whatever they want—without having to answer for their actions.

When that attitude leads to unacceptable behaviour, it cannot be tolerated.

For many, hazing is still “tradition”.  It’s acceptable.  It is not only OK, but it should not be criticized or even talked about. It should be swept under the carpet.

We should applaud that school officials in Sayreville, New Jersey took a stand.  Whether the officials should have acted sooner is difficult to determine, but a firm stand was called for—and evidently taken.

Hazing and bullying have nothing to do with team building. The New Jersey situation is one that we heard about. How often do we not hear about behaviour that should not be tolerated—because people are afraid to speak out?

Greater awareness has developed around the issues of bullying and hazing in schools, sports and society in general in recent years.  But there are some old attitudes that still need to change—and it can’t happen too quickly.