Friday, January 08, 2016

Assault at Tennessee High School Basketball Tourney

The season is over for a Tennessee high school basketball team that has been at the center of significant media attention after three upperclassmen sent a younger student to the hospital with injuries to his colon and bladder that required surgery.

The three perpetrators have been arrested and charged (as juveniles) with aggravated rape  and assault and kicked off the Ooltewah High School basketball team. The team played four games since returning from the tournament. Then, on Wednesday, the district superintendent, Rick Smith, announced that the remainder of the season would be cancelled. This is what he said:
"This decision is not a reflection upon the coaching staff. Indeed, law enforcement officials have to date found no evidence any adult acted improperly. Likewise, this decision is not meant to punish the boys on the team who are innocent of any wrongdoing and simply want to play high school sports."

So why cancel the season if everything is just fine?  Smith said something about the integrity of the investigation. But it looks like a PR move as more details are uncovered.

Many of us have read the horrid details of the injuries, caused by a pool cue, that happened in December during a high school basketball tournament. The Ooltewah team was staying in cabins near the tournament site. This is where the assault occurred. Though only one person ended up in the hospital, other first-year players were also assaulted in what was initially called a hazing incident.

First, any news source that continues to refer to this incident as hazing is doing harm and minimizing the severity not just of this incident but of the culture that continues to perpetuate the idea that male and team bonding via hazing is harmless ritual. This was assault. It was always assault. It did not start out as hazing and turn into rape. It was a planned sexual assault.

An attorney for the school district has said that part of the school's investigation will include a look at the anti-hazing policy and whether it is being effectively communicated to students. The problem is that hazing is so much more complicated than most of those involved know.

The reason the term hazing exists is because it applies to a specific situation--one in which people act against others with the intention of providing an initiation or bonding ritual. Hazing includes actions that are meant to create an in-group and out-group. One suffers through the ritual/tradition/assault to prove loyalty and thus gain entry. To prove the group itself is special, the "tradition" continues, though the entry requirements often have little to do with the group's goals or function.

The use of the term hazing does not mean that the actions are somehow more acceptable because they do not occur between strangers or seemingly have no higher purpose. Being force fed alcohol is not ok in any situation. Being sexually assaulted is never ok. The use of the term hazing in the popular discourse has had the effect of desensitizing us to the violence that all hazing entails. An incident like this makes people take notice, but many are quick to talk about how unique this incident is because of its extreme violence, thus making room for some acceptable versions of hazing/assault.

One, this is not so unique. A quick look at the literature on hazing will reveal many stories of so-called extreme hazing. Two, we have no idea how often rape, assault and other forms of violence that do not result in hospital visits occur. The culture of silence is strong. Once an individual has endured the assault and gained entry to the group, he is less likely to threaten that position by telling others what happened.

Hazing has been happening on the Ooltewah boys' basketball team for a while I would guess. The perpetrators did not just invent this. They were probably hazed themselves--which is not an excuse. This bring me back to anti-hazing education. Yes, it is important. It is important to send the message that team bonding and acceptance should not be achieved through physical assault. I wonder though if this will be the message. Because this situation will require more than a few (or more likely one based on what I know about training sessions implemented in the wake of a scandal) sessions in which administrators say "don't haze." Because most people--even teenage boys--know that sexually assaulting someone with a pool stick is not acceptable behavior. This was not bonding. This was about power, which is true of all hazing.

Saying "do not haze" will not stop hazing. Whatever culture exists that allowed this to continue needs to be addressed. Something is happening at that school. I am not sure what an investigation will uncover, but I am sure lawsuits and maybe even a Title IX complaint are forthcoming. I have some questions.

When the hazing tradition of being "beaten in" to the team was reported to the coach, an allegation made by the parent of another victim, was it really enough for him to say "stop bullying"? Who is training coaches and administrators about these issues? How were these boys not supervised in the basement of a cabin on a road trip--especially after the coaching staff knew "bullying" was occurring?

Also, I am wondering who thought it was acceptable to send the boy back after his initial hospital visit (he returned later in the night to receive surgery when his condition worsened), to the place where he had been raped. And why did no one there do anything about it at that moment? The discussion has been about the physical injuries this boy suffered, but the psychological damage caused by hazing is just as significant. Sending him back to the cabin where he had been assaulted is unthinkable.