Joe Knows: County’s reaction to Damascus scandal seems confusing

Joe Pohoryles
editor-in-chief

Dear Joe,

The horrifying incident that occurred at Damascus a couple weeks ago has understandably created a county-wide reflection regarding the prevalence of hazing among school sports teams. As you may know, the county has responded by creating a rule that shuts down access to locker rooms if an adult is not present. In addition, they’ve instituted what is essentially a zero-tolerance policy for hazing of any kind — harmless, playful or otherwise.

I guess I’m just wondering what your thoughts are regarding this whole scenario, as I’m not really sure exactly what to make of it. I understand this needed to be addressed in some way, but does this one extreme incident warrant such a widespread crackdown?

-Conflicted

Thanks for writing, Conflicted, I’ve been meaning to write on this subject. I can see why you labeled this as an “incident,” and a “scenario.” It’s a sensitive issue, but beating around the bush is not going to solve anything. Four boys were raped inside a Montgomery County school. I winced just typing that; you likely cringed reading it, or at the very least did a double take. It’s ugly, it’s sickening, but it’s the truth. The lives of the boys involved — on both sides — will never be the same. Neither will their families’. All because of an act of “hazing.”

Sexual assault is nothing to mince words with, especially in today’s climate, so I’m going to deviate from my usual sarcastic tone in this issue. I want to be as explicit as possible.
You mentioned the county’s response: locking up unattended locker rooms and an updated zero-tolerance hazing policy. Regarding the locker rooms, I see the thought process, but is that really a valid solution? As a three-season athlete, I access the locker room quite often, so having the locker rooms locked after 3 p.m. is an inconvenience, which I admit seems like a petty complaint, but it still wastes minutes of valuable practice time that over a full season will add up.

Also, hazing isn’t exclusive to locker rooms. Yes, the new rule ensures nothing of this nature can occur in a room out of reach from adult supervision and security cameras, but that raises the question: besides Damascus, was there anything of that nature occurring in locker rooms around the county? I can’t speak for other schools, but in our school’s case, I’ve only gone in there to store gear, change clothes, get water and chat with some other athletes from time to time, and that’s all I’ve encountered anyone else doing.

Maybe I’m ignorant. Maybe there are hidden cases across the county. Or maybe this new rule is in place to ensure the blame stays off the county’s hands in future cases. Who’s to know for sure? All I know is that this rule is not necessary and fails to effectively solve the real issue at hand.
Now as for the new policy, I agree there should be a zero-tolerance policy toward hazing. It does nothing but humiliate and hurt players new to the team, and — as we’ve just witnessed — can easily cross the line into criminal behavior and assault charges. The issue with the new policy, however, is that it’s unnecessarily broad.

From what my fellow winter athletes and I were told on Meet the Coaches night on Nov. 29, traditions that do not remotely resemble the “verbal, mental or physical abuse” MCPS defines as bullying, harassment and hazing are no longer tolerated.

For example, the Poms squad has an annual tradition of initiating new teammates by “abducting” them from their homes. It’s all coordinated with parents ahead of time, and nothing illegal occurs. Instead, the girls are taken to breakfast, then brought to school where they’re dressed in an embarrassing outfit and given excessive make-up. It’s a silly, harmless tradition that, in some ways, served as a fun albeit unique bonding opportunity. But it’s now banned.

It was also implied at this meeting that inclusive games like “Assassin,” played among multiple teams at the school throughout the year, may not be tolerated either. Even making freshmen fill up the water jugs — a task reserved for the freshmen in virtually all sports as a means of initiation and gaining respect — could receive the axe for singling out freshmen. Freshmen could hypothetically consent to be a subject of this “hazing,” (for the fun or the tradition or whatever reason) and the “perpetrator” would still be subject to punishment, which includes removal from the team and further legal action.

Our school and the rest of the county are being collectively punished for the actions of five sophomores from one school. We cannot tolerate sexual assault, but these attempts of damage control seem to be too vast, and even lazy. If the county wants to reach an effective solution, more intensive work has to be done; one broad brush under the rug will not end it.

A good idea instead would be to investigate not just the crime, but the culture of Damascus athletics as a whole, and from there look into the environment fostered by schools across the county. I’m not insinuating they’re to blame, but it would be a good place to start, as changing the culture from the inside-out would likely be more effective than slamming us with unnecessary restrictions.

The overwhelming majority of students in this school and around the county have the moral compass to avoid even thinking of assaulting people in any context, so we should not have to pay for the actions of five deplorable individuals.

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