April 5, 2016
By JULIET MACUR
BERWYN, Pa. — On my way to Conestoga High School last week to learn about accusations of brutal hazing by the football team, I felt as if I’d been to this place before.
I hadn’t been to Chester County. That’s where Thomas P. Hogan, the district attorney, charged three high school seniors this month with crimes related to an assault inside their football team’s locker room.
But this scene, this issue, was all too familiar. Young athletes accused of behaving badly, criminally badly, because of a twisted group mentality, and a town that is left both stunned and divided.
On my way to the prosecutor’s office, I cut through southeast Pennsylvania farmland dotted with silos and gentle hills. Then I headed to Conestoga High School, past quaint and quiet downtowns and busy strip malls. The school is about 25 miles west of Philadelphia, yet it seems a world away.
After school, children were playing lacrosse, ultimate Frisbee and baseball on nearby fields while parents read newspapers in the parking lot. Down the street from the school, a long line of students and families waited at Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream and Yogurt, as students and families have been doing for years.
Now Conestoga High School is the latest data point on a grim tally:
■ Three high school basketball players were charged in Sevier County, Tenn., in December with raping another player with a pool cue so violently that the boy had to undergo surgery because of the extent of his internal injuries.
■ Four high school wrestlers in Norman, Okla., were charged in February with raping two other wrestlers, including one 12-year-old boy, in a school bus on the way home from a tournament.
■ In Leechburg, Pa., the police are investigating a high school basketball team for a hazing ritual involving what it called a stick, which possibly had been used for 10-plus years to penetrate younger teammates.
The list goes on.
I came to Chester County to inquire about “No Gay Thursdays,” the term the district attorney says players used for the hazing. One Thursday in October, the prosecutor said, a freshman player was held down and assaulted with a broomstick as seniors poked him between the legs with it, eventually penetrating him while teammates looked on.
Thomas P. Hogan, the Chester County, Pa., district attorney, said if hazing can happen at Conestoga High School, it can happen anywhere. Credit Jessica Kourkounis for The New York Times
Some in the community rose up to defend the players, saying the victim was a bad and cocky kid who had caused trouble before. Others said the issue should have been dealt with by school administrators, not the police. News trucks lined the school’s parking lot, prompting the principal, Amy Meisinger, to hold class assemblies last Wednesday, so she could address what was happening.
“The principal told us, ‘We can’t let this ruin our pride for ’Stoga, because we are very proud of our school and our accomplishments, and you should be, too,’ ” said Aubrey Taicher, a junior at the school. “I think she is absolutely right. Besides, nobody really believes any of the accusations really happened.”
What makes the accusations especially jarring for Conestoga is that the high school has a reputation as one of the best in the state, but not for its sports — for its academics. Every year, it proudly announces where its graduates are going to college, and the lineup is always impressive. Last year, for example, according to the school district, four students went to Yale, four to Princeton and five to Columbia.
This year, the list might include juvenile detention.
Neither the principal nor the school district’s superintendent, Richard Gusick, returned my telephone calls or responded to written messages. But Mark Cataldi, the district’s director of assessment and accountability, said in an email that the district was “in the process of investigating a serious matter.”
Hogan, the district attorney, wanted to talk about the case, though. He wants everyone to know about it. He took the case public, though its documents are sealed because the defendants are juveniles. He told me that if hazing can happen at Conestoga, it can happen anywhere.
He played sports, and he has two teenagers who play sports. He told me he felt it was his job to make the facts of this case known, so it can raise awareness about hazing and protect athletes from this recurring “hazing garbage,” which he sees as a growing problem.
“If you want to have a kid stand up and sing a silly fight song, then it’s all right, or let the freshmen carry the Gatorade onto the practice field, go ahead,” Hogan said. “But kids have to stop doing things that will have lasting physical or psychological damage to other kids.”
When investigating this case, Hogan did a quick Internet search for other cases and was floored by what he saw. Hazing cases were popping up all over the country.
Why so many? Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and an expert on hazing, said it was happening because hazing is a sports tradition that has endured for generations, and coaches and administrators often let it happen. The adults in the room — well, they leave the room and let the mayhem ensue.
Lipkins said coaches considered hazing a way for their team to bond — and that bonding supposedly helps them win. Those adults also have an “it happened to me, so it will happen to you” attitude about hazing and just consider it a part of sports, she said.
“Most of them think that hazing provides a form of bonding, a form of discipline, and is a way to maintain the hierarchy,” Lipkins said. “It’s a management practice, and coaches just look the other way.”
Coaches who leave students in charge of their own locker room are basically leaving “the inmates in charge of the asylum,” she said, adding that the adults in charge are only asking for trouble when they leave teenage boys unsupervised because those boys are often testosterone-fueled and power-hungry, a perfect combination for hazing to occur.
According to Lipkins, hazing episodes have grown more violent and sexual — including, at times, the use of broomsticks, golf balls and pine cones covered in Mineral Ice — because those doing the hazing try to put their mark on the tradition, so they take it to an even more wicked level.
An obvious fix, it seems, is to make adults accountable. Require them to be present in, or at least within earshot of, the locker room and to ride on team buses. Force them to realize that it’s their job to keep their athletes safe. Otherwise, they won’t have a job. Parents, too, have to be vigilant about what their children are up to; they shouldn’t just hand them over to coaches with blind trust.
From Hogan’s perspective, every locker room should have a coach in it. And everyone who even hears about a ritual like No Gay Thursdays — including Conestoga’s coaches, who Hogan said “must have known” — should take a stand against it. He said he hoped this case would at least remind families, coaches and administrators that hazing is a problem. To stop it, he said, people must be proactive.
In Conestoga’s case, the coaches were in offices down the hall and around the corner. So it’s possible they didn’t hear the assault occur. But did they know about No Gay Thursdays?
Sam Bouhdary, a senior lacrosse player, said that the phrase No Gay Thursdays did “float around the school,” but that no one took it seriously. He said he was friends with some of the football players but hadn’t heard of any hazing going on. He doesn’t doubt, however, that it is a continuing problem on some other teams, in other places, because he’s read about it in the news.
“Getting rid of it is not as easy as, let’s say, doing a simple algebra equation,” he said of hazing.
At some point, let’s hope that the denial will give way to proper supervision.
“No one wants to talk about it,” Hogan said. “They want to say not in my high school, not here. It’s a dirty little secret that gets swept under the rug, and I say, no more.”