The timing's perfect to take a stand against hazing

Updated 2/9/2017 9:23 PM

No one is perfect.

No adult, no teenager, no child.

We all make mistakes. We all have our shortcomings. We all have chosen wrong when we should have chosen right.

That doesn't necessarily make us bad people, just very human.

When I write feature stories and columns on high school kids, I'm not looking for a flawless character, because none exists.

But I do try to vet as much as I can through coaches and teammates, because I am always hoping to feature a pretty good all-round citizen, someone who may not be perfect in every way, but who is still, in the big picture, worthy of the buildup he or she would receive by getting coverage to that depth and extent.

When a deeply disturbing situation surfaces, such as the sexually charged hazing allegations currently involving the Lake Zurich football team, which I have covered for the last 20 years, it makes me very unsettled.

Unsettled for the obvious reasons, of course. Something so graphic and extreme and hurtful happening in our community is startling. It awakens the senses. Especially when teenagers are involved, both as the perpetrators and as the victims. In this case, older players were targeting younger players, making them do unspeakable acts, all in the name of team loyalty. Terrible.

From a professional standpoint, I also worry that I have (albeit unknowingly) played a part over the years in building up even just a few of the perpetrators involved by writing about them in a glowing way.

It's honestly a question and concern I have about anyone I write about, which is why I almost always talk to coaches before I talk to kids. "Tell me about this kid, Coach," I'll say. "Is this someone I should be writing about?"

But sometimes, and especially now, I wonder how well the coaches even know their own players.

Allegations at Lake Zurich are that the hazing within the football team is a deeply rooted problem that has spanned decades. But former Lake Zurich head football coach Dave Proffitt, who resigned shortly after this story broke, has said that he had no idea the hazing in his program was occurring.

I'm not sure where the truth is here. I don't have much inside information about the situation in general. But what I can tell you is that I've known Proffitt for years. He could be feisty and intense, but from my perspective, he seemed like a genuinely nice person who really cared about his players.

That wasn't nearly enough to save Proffitt though.

Proffitt lost his job because of this. So did Lake Zurich athletic director Rolly Vazquez, as well as other school officials and employees.

The school is also about to have a huge legal fight on its hands. Parents of the victims have filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, and that could get nasty and cost millions.

As a parent of two teenagers myself, I get that. I really do. My heart breaks for the teenagers who were victimized at Lake Zurich and may suffer lifelong problems as a consequence. If my kids were abused in the horrible ways that have been alleged in this case, I would want heads to roll too. I would want someone to pay.

But the most obvious question is this: Will the actual, most culpable, first-hand perpetrators in this case ever actually pay? With even a slap on the wrist? Or will they get to hide behind the, "But I'm just a minor," cloak?

The experts have reminded me that the latter is a valid point.

"Teenagers might look like adults, but they're not," said Northbrook-based therapist and counselor Brooke Fox of Fox, Levine & Associates, LLC. "Their brains are not finished developing. That frontal lobe where we make decisions and control impulses and emotions isn't done growing. I think teenagers should be held responsible for their actions, but they are also not capable of the exact same decision making that adults are."

So a lack of cognitive development in the teenage brain leads to poor decisions and reasoning skills. That makes sense. And who am I to argue science? But anecdotally, is that really enough to conclude that teenagers who are otherwise functioning members of society, and in this case successful and driven enough to survive on a varsity football team, weren't capable of understanding the heinousness of their actions behind the closed doors of that locker room?

"When the brain is not fully developed, teenagers will give a different meaning to what they're doing (than what adults would see)," said Bruce Bonecutter, chief psychologist of the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center and a member of the Illinois Psychological Association. "If they're doing something wrong, they'll diminish it because maybe it seems like the norm to them. They'll diminish their behavior because perhaps that's what they've seen always happen in the past."

And yet, as we all know, teenagers also live very much in the present. And these days, you can't tell me they don't know that bullying and hazing is unacceptable. The anti-bullying platform is everywhere in our schools. In my opinion, it is the equivalent of the "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign that permeated the educational system during my era.

Kids are hit over the head constantly with anti-bullying messages. They are told about zero tolerance at school. Some schools ask kids to sign anti-bullying agreements.

So where is the disconnect here? How does such a prevalent and powerful narrative like this hit home with some, and slip through the cracks with others? How does a Lake Zurich happen, and to the extent that it happened?

"Bullying has always happened (in society), but it feels like the intensity or degree of it has increased," said Nikki Levine, a Northbrook-based therapist and counselor of Fox, Levine & Associates, LLC. "The video games these kids play where hurting each other and killing each other is everywhere, the movies they see where everything is so sexualized, the pornography they can access easily, it has just intensified everything.

"Kids seeing that everywhere … it almost makes it feel more acceptable and almost normal to them. It normalizes it. So the cycle (of bullying and hazing) continues because it seems normal.

"And kids who want to say something often don't because they are so afraid of getting rejected by the group. They want to be part of the group."

So everyone wants to be a part of the group? Even the kind of group that existed at Lake Zurich?

Not one kid, not even the very best player on the football team at Lake Zurich, who in theory would have a lot of pull with his teammates, wanted to stand up and shut the door on this?

I've met some very magnetic and persuasive high school athletes in my 20 years at the Daily Herald. They exist. They have influence. Was there no one in the Lake Zurich locker room this year, or in any other year, willing to show that kind of leadership?

Disappointing. Disheartening.

But maybe … predictable?

"Even if you are the stud of the team, you aren't always aware of the leadership abilities you have, or how to utilize that leadership," Fox said. "There is an insecurity that the risk is pretty high that if you stand up and no one follows you, you could be the next victim no matter what a stud you are.

"And the sad part is, (even the studs) were probably once victims, too. And we know that abusers were once the abused. That's a cycle we see play out everywhere."

It's a cycle that needs to stop everywhere, and particularly in high school sports. High school sports are supposed to build self-esteem, not destroy it. They are supposed to cultivate safe and positive experiences for our kids.

I challenge the high school athletes of Lake County, the good citizens among you, to take back your sports, take back your teams.

It takes one person…not a perfect person, just a brave one, to speak up and say, "We're not going to do this, guys. We're just not."

Stand up. Speak out. Now.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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