Editors note: The names of all parents interviewed for this article are not being used to avoid spotlighting individual students connected to this story.
School district officials in Arkansas City are examining the district’s hazing policy after much of the varsity boy’s basketball team was suspended last month following a game at Winfield.
The incident led to nine players and another student suspended after a freshmen teammate was targeted for what school officials determined was hazing by more veteran teammates. The actions were part of a team tradition carried over from previous years, according to multiple parents of players, and an assistant coach was present at the Dec. 6 event that led to the suspensions.
USD 470 Superintendent Ron Ballard said he thought the high school handled the issue appropriately, but he sees a need for more effective communication among all people involved. The district also plans to recommend a review of the hazing policy.
“I believe we can always improve,” Ballard said. “So in future months, we will work with students to assure understanding of the hazing policy and the school’s expectations.”
School board vice president Mike Munson said the high school’s response was being evaluated.
“And we are reviewing the policies to see if adjustments need to be made to handle this type of situation in the future,” he said.
The students received three-days of in-school suspension. Players sat out one game on Dec. 10 and apologies were made to the freshman player.
A majority of six parents interviewed said they thought the school overreacted in punishing their kids for what they believe amounted to horseplay, not hazing.
Some of the suspended students were disciplined for watching, not participating in, the incident. The actions were captured on video, parents said, and were reported to school officials by the freshman player targeted.
The written disciplinary report sent to parents by the school states that their child was suspended for being “involved in a hazing incident after the basketball game. The student was taken to the ground and players pretended to hit and kick him.”
The word “pretend” reinforces some parents’ belief that the event was overblown. They based this on what their kids told them and how school officials or coaches described the video of the event to them.
Some also believe the school reacted harshly to placate an angry parent.
“To them they’re not in trouble because their coach is standing right there watching them,” one parent said. “And on Monday, they were told they were suspended and can’t play.”
But other accounts suggest the player was indeed physically and emotionally hurt, and that the severity of the event is being minimized by others.
These parents also are concerned — after having learned the incident was a continuation of an established ritual — that a culture of hazing exits.
One mother, whose son was suspended for watching the event and not reporting it, said she was horrified at what had happened.
“Why didn’t he stop it? Was it peer pressure? Group think?” she said. “These are not the values being taught in our home. This is not OK!”
High school principal Jeremy Truelove signed the discipline reports. He said hazing doesn’t have to involve actual physical harm, but can include deprecation and holding somebody against their will.
Asked about reports that an assistant coach was present at the incident, Truelove said he could not comment on a personnel matter.
“We expect our coaches to maintain high levels of supervision to make sure our students are all safe,” he said. “If (we) felt that was not happening, then there would be reprimands.”
Athletic Director Aaron Bucher said he had worked closely with Truelove on the issue and that his comments would echo the principal’s. Head coach C.J. Jennings declined to comment.
Multiple parents said their children told them that they experienced a rite of passage similar to the one that led to their suspensions.
From these reports, the tradition began at least two years ago. One parent said it occurred after the team would win a road game. That parent also said his son told him he got it much worse than the freshman player this year.
Another parent said her son described it as no big deal, something the team always does and not meant to hurt anybody.
“He told me, ‘Mom, it happened to me,’” this parent said. “They did that to me. We do it all the time.”
Another parent said her son told her that it builds bonds of brotherhood.
“Who on earth is teaching this mindset to my son?” this parent asked. “Where are the adults, the coaches, in all this?”
Truelove said the first he learned about any issue was during the weekend after the Dec. 6 incident. Discipline is handled year to year, he said, so something that happened in previous years would not factor into current decisions.
Truelove said he doesn’t think the basketball program has a hazing problem and does not think a more general hazing problem exists at the school.
He did say that a review of the appropriate policies needed to take place.
“When events happen that you don’t want to happen, then you need to make sure that it’s communicated that we’re not meeting the expectation of our community,” he said.
Several parents also complained that the school’s response to the basketball incident revealed favoritism toward students whose parents have influence at the school.
“They can’t pick and choose when to follow what rule to follow and when they’re going to follow it,” one parent said. “And basically that’s what they’re doing.”
In response, Truelove said students are treated the same regarding consequences or praise.
“We don’t focus on the last name, or who the student is, or the social status of their family,” he said. “That would be dereliction of my responsibility. I would never do that.”
For 27 years, Elliot Hopkins has spoken about hazing prevention and investigated more than 1,000 incidents, he said.
The director of sports for the National Federation of State High School Associations, Hopkins said studies have shown that 1.5 million high school students endure a hazing experience each year.
Things can start out seemingly innocent enough, he said, but they always get worse. And nobody goes through a hazing experience — victim, perpetrator or bystander — without some negative emotion such as remorse, guilt or trauma.
“‘Well, I got hit once. We’re going to hit Bobby twice,’” Elliot said, describing the mindset. “It gets really ugly, really quick. And without adult supervision … that’s how you get hazing. That’s how you get into a situation of where it becomes a culture of hazing.”
Psychologist Dr. Susan Lipkins said hazing is rampant in high schools and there is big lack of awareness.
Hazing can happen in any group with a hierarchy, including honor societies and church groups, not just athletics.
A code of silence among those groups perpetuates the activity, she said, and former victims who later enact the ritual feel like they are regaining a piece of themselves that got hurt.
“They feel they have the duty, the right to pass on to them what they experienced as victims, and this is the way they do it,” said Lipkins, author of Preventing Hazing. “That’s why nobody usually breaks the code of silence and admits to it.”
A victim who does break the code risks being socially isolated, she said, and can suffer emotional difficulties and problems at school.
The wider culture often defends the status quo, she added, and school officials tend to minimize the problem because they are held responsible.
Anti-hazing training that involves adults all the way down to school custodians should be required, Lipkins said, as well as constant supervision in locker rooms, buses and playing fields. The ability to anonymously report hazing should also be in place.
Elliot said most hazing incidents occur in the back of the bus after road games, where players are not supervised. Coaches have to make player safety a priority, he said.
“Today’s coaches, God love them,” Elliot said. “They have to be a psychiatrist, a mother, a father. They spend so much time with the kids, they are a major influencer on the kids.”
School board president Jon Oak did not reply to messages seeking comment before deadline Monday.