By all appearances, the South Lane School District hoped to hide from the public the fact that a Cottage Grove High School junior varsity football player alleged he was assaulted with a broomstick in a “hazing incident” by two teammates in late September. The district’s handling of the situation demonstrates an appalling lack of leadership and warrants a fuller accounting of corrective actions.
The attack allegedly took place in the boys’ locker room on Sept. 27 and was witnessed by several people. School officials say they reported the student’s account of the incident to the Cottage Grove Police Department the same day. Police Chief Scott Shepherd called the incident “very egregious and actually shocking.”
Two 15-year-old students were subsequently arrested and cited for physical harassment, but it wasn’t until three weeks later — when the victim’s family spoke up and The Register-Guard reported on the attack — that district officials publicly acknowledged it.
It wasn’t until Friday that the district, at last, expressed regret that it hadn’t informed parents sooner.
But until then, officials said little in follow-up emails to parents. The case has been forwarded to Lane County Youth Services, and the suspects’ names are not being released because of their age.
School officials are similarly required to protect the privacy of students, but the district’s reticence has gone well beyond what is required as it has circled the wagons.
The school district says supervision has been increased since the incident, and changes will be made in instructions to student athletes and coaches.
The school district has clear policies prohibiting sexual harassment and hazing, with punishment ranging from counseling and awareness training to expulsion. Principal Kevin Herington says disciplinary action has been taken, including action regarding participation in the football program, but would provide no details. “At this time, our investigation from the school side of things has been closed, and players who received consequences have served those consequences,” he said.
The high school’s Student and Parent Handbook is clear that students who violate basic standards risk losing the ability to play sports. “Eligibility to participate in any school activity is a privilege and requires acceptable citizenship of the student,” the handbook reads. “Students who depart from acceptable behavior may be declared ineligible and may not participate in, or attend, any school function that is not a regular classroom assignment.”
Last month’s incident is unarguably a departure from “acceptable behavior.” Why would the high school and the district not want to explain how they have taken a stand and disciplined the students responsible?
Parents are justifiably upset. “Usually, we get through the ‘parent pipeline’ emails about what’s going on at school,” Cottage Grove parent Renee Anderson told The Register-Guard. “A couple of days after school started, I got an email just to inform me that the power had gone out, which I find very interesting. But there’s (an assault) on campus and nothing.”
Experienced school officials should recognize the value of being transparent following incidents like this. It’s impossible for news not to spread inside the school, often generating inaccurate information that can heighten fear and potentially lead to more violence.
The lack of openness also breeds distrust of the school district’s decision-making process. Some parents are questioning whether the district’s priority was to avoid embarrassment or keep the football program intact. The district’s silence invited that conjecture.
These types of hazing incidents are unfortunately not new, which reinforces the need for school districts to report them so that others are aware and can take steps to reduce the likelihood of assaults in their communities.
Last year, four junior varsity football players in Maryland were arrested for first-degree rape after attacking four teammates in what was described as a “brooming” hazing ritual. Similar incidents involving broomsticks or other objects have occurred in at least a half-dozen other states in recent years, including Sprague High School and Philomath High School in Oregon.
In cases like these, leaders must step forward and provide an accurate account of what transpired and what is being done to hold people accountable and prevent a recurrence. On all counts, the South Lane School District has failed so far.
The students responsible for this attack — and those who stood by while it was happening — face a long road to redemption.
So do the officials who chose silence over leadership.