The recent hazing case, and how we talk about it

Most of the women’s swim team was recently suspended from finishing out the season, after members of both the men’s and women’s teams were found to have violated the College’s hazing policy.

At the expense of joining the conversation on this topic a bit late, MiddBlog hopes to examine the case and the reactions to it thus far. The goal is to build a basis for constructive discussion about the broader concerns the situation raises.

This post is longer than average, so hit “Read more” for the rest:

The statement

Below is the full text of the College’s official response to the hazing incident. As a point of clarification, the Administration did not “release” or “publish” this statement in the sense of actively sending it out; rather, Old Chapel provided the text to anyone who called or emailed in to ask about the situation.

Middlebury College has investigated1 violations of the college’s hazing policy by the men’s and women’s swim teams and determined that violations did occur. The college has also investigated charges of hazing by individual members of the men’s and women’s swim teams and is in the process of determining whether action will be taken regarding individual team members under its anti-harassment policy.2 The violations took place during activities involving both teams on Feb. 2. After the investigation began Feb. 3, the teams were prohibited from competing at an invitational swim meet on the Middlebury campus Feb. 5. As of Feb. 7, the college’s Department of Public Safety had interviewed more than 30 students. On Feb. 8, based on these reports, college administrators determined that the women’s swim team, with the exception of the first-year students, will not compete for the remainder of the season. Both the men’s and women’s teams will be on probation3 next year. The college is communicating with individual students about forthcoming charges and adjudication processes regarding possible violations of Middlebury’s hazing policy. Middlebury College has a zero tolerance policy for hazing and harassment, and takes all possible conduct violations very seriously.

Shirley Collado
Dean of the College and Chief Diversity Officer

Now for our footnotes. The statement uses a few terms that need to be unpacked to understand exactly what’s going on:

  1. The protocol for “investigation” of suspected hazing violations is as follows: After reviewing information gathered in interviews, and after conferring with coaches, senior administrators and the director of athletics, the Dean of the College has final say on violations committed by groups (see note #3 for individual offenses).
  2. For athletic teams, “probation” means that, “if the team engages in any conduct violations while on probation, it will face serious disciplinary consequences or sanctions, which would be determined depending on the nature of the violations,” says Sarah Ray, Director of Public Affairs for the College. Scrutiny isn’t necessarily increased while on probation, but punishments are harsher.
  3. There is a distinction between the team and its members: sanctions for the team as a unit have been finalized, but consequences for each team member are being handled separately.  Per College policy, the Dean’s office decides the former while the Community Judicial Board (CDB) holds  individual hearings on the latter.

Finally, to understand the charges, we need complete information about the policy being violated. The full text of Midd’s hazing policy (including adjudication procedures) can be found in Section 2 of the College Handbook’s Community Standards and General Policies. Below is the definition of hazing:

[A]ny act committed by a person, whether individually or in concert with others, against a student in connection with pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, holding office in, or maintaining membership in any organization which is affiliated with an educational institution; and which is intended to have the effect of, or should reasonably be expected to have the effect of, humiliating, intimidating or demeaning the student or endangering the mental or physical health of a student. Hazing also includes soliciting, directing, aiding, or otherwise participating actively or passively in the above acts.

The implied or expressed consent to hazing is not a defense under applicable State law or this policy.

Those are the definitions, rules, and violations at play here.

The coverage

If you count Middlebury Confessional as “coverage,” the flow of information about the incident was lively from the beginning–if 100% rumor.  The College wrote its statement early on, but since the document was only available by request, many students assumed no response had been made at all.

Bowdoin’s newspaper, The Orient, published an article based on the Middlebury Administration’s statement on February 11th–beating all local news outlets by a week.

The next two pieces of coverage came from The Campus on the 17th. First, the Sports section included a short, straightforward sidebar similar to Bowdoin’s, summarizing the official statement.

The same day, The Campus featured an editorial by a writer who had intended to cover the incident more extensively but had been received “a big, fat ‘No'” from her editor. The author, Maddie Kahn ’11, accuses The Campus (herself included) of tending to bow to political correctness. “[T]he role of journalists,” Kahn says, “is to write the truth — clean and simple.”

Some questions

The incident, the decision and the representation of both lead to urgent conversations that have only been vaguely hinted at so far.  Here are some questions we feel are most important:

  • How well is the College following its own rules?
  • What about when rules are more vague, as with the process by which a troubling incident becomes a hazing case?
  • Does the policy’s broad language leave the Administration too much discretion over which cases to address and how? (This last question ties into other issues like protected speech.)
  • Why has awareness of the case spread in such a lopsided way?

“Transparency” is the easy word to use in relation to all of the above, but it doesn’t quite fit. Perhaps it makes more sense to talk about “attentiveness,” a combination of transparency and grasp of context. By Wednesday, rumors were so widespread that professors felt comfortable mentioning the incident in class, yet some students still had no idea the College had dealt with the situation publicly at all. A hazing accusation always means more than the sum of its details, if not in theory than certainly in practice. What has been missing so far from all responses to this case has been attentiveness to the subjective reactions, questions and rumors that inevitably ripple through communities after negative events.

So where were we?

MiddBlog editors had been following the story from its earliest rumor-embryo, but we didn’t report on it because, frankly, we were divided and confused. Instead of the dichotomy Kahn points out between “the truth” and editorial decisions that merely “try to please,” our debates in the editors’ Facebook thread show the gray area around options for covering “bad press” issues.

One of our editors, who wanted no more than a cursory treatment of the incident, argued from a practical perspective. “What happened doesn’t leave much room for discussion — there’s no controversy.” The same editor worried that extra attention might only make things more painful for those innocent team members caught up in the investigation.

Common-sense arguments also held up the other side: “if Bowdoin wrote about i think it would be pretty embarrassing if there were no midd publications that acknowledged it. Plus is middblog not allowed to post things that are negative and controversial? I feel like those are the posts that people most want to read and that most need a space for discussion.” Another editor agreed for more idealistic reasons that echo those in Kahn’s op-ed: “good journalism shouldn’t avoid negative or emotional issues.”

In a way, The Campus got the best of both worlds: a tidy briefing on the judicial decision and a bold editorial condemning its own tendency toward political correctness. Of course, the same could be said for MiddBlog: we used our flexible publication schedule to say exactly what we wanted, when we wanted to.

Within our subjective frame, we hope we’ve laid the issue’s groundwork clearly and created some points of entry for further discussion, from all perspectives.

Thanks are due to Sarah Ray, Middlebury College Director of Public Affairs, for being helpful, open and responsive to MiddBlog’s questions.

Advertisements

24 thoughts on “The recent hazing case, and how we talk about it

  1. I tried posting this letter to Maddie Kahn’s article on the Middlebury Campus website (http://www.middleburycampus.com/2011/02/17/why-must-we-be-so-politically-correct/), but it still needs to be moderated.

    Dear Maddie:

    An old expression on censorship states: “Freedom is speech is limited to those with a printing press”.

    We now live in the internet era and you can easily spread information without seeking permission. So, please publish your article on MiddBlog (http://midd-blog.com/). Middlebury students, parents and alums have a right to know the reasons for Old Chapel to give the severest punishment to a swim team: cancelling an entire season.

    Old Chapel should also welcome disclosure of the infractions. By failing to address the hazing incident in a public forum (such as a letter to The Campus or an email to the whole student body), Old Chapel missed an important opportunity to inform the Middlebury community what behavior will not be tolerated. Also, disclosure of the infractions will make the judicial proceedings transparent and build trust in the administration. Therefore, Old Chapel would counteract rumors and anonymous postings on MiddleburyConfessional that the administration is overreacting and out to quash innocent fun. Finally, informing the community would build social pressure on the swim team to reform. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and if the swim team’s behavior is as boorish as Old Chapel alleges, swimmers will find themselves shunned by their friends. Therefore, swimmers will have added incentive to become respectful members of the Middlebury community.

    A suspension will ultimately instill discipline in the swim team, so that its members will become better athletes and human beings. However, Old Chapel must have a transparent judicial process. It was only 5 years ago that the Men’s Team was banned from the postseason without any explanation from Old Chapel other than generic language about “hazing”. [1] As a former swimmer, I urge Old Chapel to reconsider its silence so history does not repeat itself.

    [1] http://www.middleburycampus.com/2006/02/16/violations-of-team-policy-halt-mens-season-panthers-blocked-from-postseason-competition-because-of-hazing-offenses/

  2. varsity Swimmer 04: what a cop out. The College needn’t enumerate the activities that took place in order for kids supposedly as smart as Middkids to know what will not be tolerated. The admin does not want to further humuliate both the genius masterminds behind the activities in question, not tose upon whom such stupidity was applied.

    But having first-years blow a banana ans ask male onlookers to “grade” them is pretty humiliating. Or asking blindfolded first years to comment on male swimmers’ penises while blindfolded and then told to remove the blindfolds to see all a crowd of male swimmers present is again humiliating. No Middlebury student needs anything more than the Vermont laws against hazing to know what behavior will not be tolerated.

    Varsity swimmer 04 does his or her Midd degree an injustice by making the self-righteous post he or she made. There is nobody to point fingers at other than the (non) leadership of the women’s swim team. Blaming “Old Chapel” for not doing this or that is nonsense and embarrassing. Unless VS 04 doesn’t think the little described in this post, all aimed at first-years, is just fine behavior. If he or she does, well then one has to wonder where character fits into his or her world outlook. Nowhere, it seems.

  3. Forgot to mention: it would be incredibly embarrassing for the women (and some men) swimmers if all the info came out about the hazing incident, including how the women swimmers themselves developed guidelines for hazing and how they would not tolerate it as part of team activities. They were also advised by the college’s ncaa compliance officer on college, ncaa, and nescac policies regarding hazing. Perhaps VS 04 would be best served reviewing coach solomon’s letter to swimming parents. Maybe a swimming parent middblog reader will share it.

  4. I understand the College’s initial impulse toward confidentiality: with issues that already involve people feeling embarrassed or pressured socially, there are good reasons to deal with infractions without unnecessary fanfare. However, I do think the College should have been more forthcoming once it was clear that the scales were tipping in such a way that the rumors were more harmful than sending out an all-student email would have been.

    Also, FYI: a new Midd Confessional thread has popped up, but it’s very troll-heavy, so I don’t think it’s worth quoting or highlighting.

  5. JP: what exactly do you mean by “more forthcoming?” Where do you draw the line in terms of providing information? Do you know how many disciplinary cases are dealt with? There are many, and so what detail do you think is necessary and remains fair to the students involved in each case? Who was clamoring for specific information about the incident(s) that led to Delta House (its previous incarnation)? Hey, why doesn’t MiddBlog draft a hypothetical memo that its authors think would have done the trick and let’s see how much better that might look.

    But the larger point about this hazing incident appears to be lost on this blog. I am no shill for the administration (I have my own issues with it), but I have found it is so common for students to take umbrage over things they claim are “done to” students, when in essence it is more of a cop out by students who are not willing to own up to what here is really an issue of bad student judgment, bad choices, and a failure to own up to such action and choices. It is so easy to point fingers and not look in the mirror, but looking into the mirror is really part of one’s education in college; time for more mirror gazing and less finger pointing at the administration.

  6. I for one think it should be posted as if its embarrassing to the current swim team then they might realize how dumb they were to haze people in the first place. Just because it is embarrassing to the current team does not mean it should not be posted. How something like that could even be part of a team’s initiation is crazy! What were they thinking! They are lucky that they are doing this inside the Middlebury bubble and not the real world as people go to jail for things like this.

  7. Almost every team or organization on campus has an initiation or appreciation. The impulse to do something special to mark induction into an organization is a powerful one and should probably be accepted in some fashion or another. The swim team wasn’t worse than any other team, just unluckier for getting caught.

    Instead, the judicial code should be changed. The college does itself a disservice when its codes are violated every fall and spring by organizations welcoming (and I do mean welcoming, I’ve been initiated, it was a blast) new members.

    • “Middstudent11″
      My name is Kyle Finck and I’m an editor at the Campus Newspaper. I’m currently writing an investigative piece regarding the incident. Would you be willing to elaborate on your posts and contribute to the article?

  8. Kevin: Thanks for your comment. In writing this post, I did not intend to “point fingers” at the Administration or displace blame for the event from the students at fault.

    My only criticism of the Administration (in the post and in my first comment) is that the College underestimated how badly the students themselves (ourselves) would handle the situation: starting rumors, etc. By “more forthcoming,” I meant something as simple as an all-student email containing the existing official statement. If the Administration considers a single event serious enough to merit drafting a statement in response to it, then it isn’t surprising that other people would take it just as seriously.

    That, I hope, was the only bit of editorialism that made its way into the post. The questions in the “some questions” section were not accusations. I asked them because I knew opinions would vary, or because I really didn’t know the answers.

    This post was about what happens after an incident of hazing occurs. It is not investigative journalism. A lot of students (myself included, until a few days ago) don’t know how these policies and rules work. It was my primary goal to clarify what the policy itself means, alongside its implementation in this case.

    If anyone is interested in my personal opinions about the incident, here they are:
    -I think suspension of the team was an appropriate reaction. Team members probably have the hazing policy drilled into their heads at some point each year; it would be hard to think of a good excuse for not anticipating some kind of serious consequences.
    -Based on the information I have (all of which is in the post), the Administration did a good, careful job of sticking to the goals and regulations it set for itself when the policy was written. Whether or not the policy itself should be up for debate (as Middstudent11 argues) is another issue, one I’m far from decided on.

    Thanks for making me make myself clearer.

  9. Initiations are, for good or bad, illegal in the state of Vermont. Anything that separates out a group and has them do things that fall within a reasonable person’s (not college student’s) understanding of what it is to humiliate, falls under the rubric of hazing. Has anyone realized that yet? Being a Middlebury student does not shield one from the law. If Middlebury College did not prosecute initiations or anything that is covered in the Vermont statute, state law enforcement will. So instead of saying “since everyone does it, it is ok,” students might wake up and understand “this is no longer tolerated (and the Vermont law got stricter this past year)” and might change such activities.

  10. Kevin actually knows what he is talking about thank you. I am shocked that Middstudent11 thinks the things that happened during that hazing are ok. Clearly the money you paid for your education was a waste. You are in for a rude awakening upon entering the real world.

  11. Regardless of what occurred, the swim team has payed their dues and I don’t think it is anyone’s right to exploit the team’s situation in promoting the college’s enforcement of hazing policies.

  12. @Olivia: not clear what you are suggesting here. What would constitute “exploit[ing] the team’s situation in promoting the college’s enforcement of hazing policies?”

  13. Woah Tony. Slow down. While I don’t agree with Middstudent11 that swim initiation was no worse than other teams (I’ve been around that block and been “initiated” myself on two different occasions), and I’m definitely not condoning what was done, I do see his point. In the right form I think that an initiation can be an acceptable welcome. When done in a way where no one is forced to do anything (including drinking) that they are uncomfortable with you can still have a fun event that welcomes new people to a group who they are about to spend huge amounts of time with. In my two experiences it was made clear to me well before hand that the whole thing was optional, that I wouldn’t be forced into doing anything and that drinking alcohol was neither required nor expected. In my mind I don’t see how this is a problem.
    I don’t think saying that the money that Middstudent11 spent on an education was a waste was in any way necessary, and I don’t feel that we need to turn Middblog into a forum where people attack each other. Let’s leave that for Midd Confessional.

    • “Middstudent11” and “12”
      My name is Kyle Finck and I’m an editor at the Campus Newspaper. I’m currently writing an investigative piece regarding the incident. Would either of you be willing to elaborate on your posts and contribute to the article?

  14. I checked back to see the thread of comments here and think it is great that people are still talking about the issue, however, many seem to be missing what I believe is the point of the original article and the editorial that was written by Maddie Kahn…it is not whether the hazing incident and the administrations handling of it was right/wrong or otherwise. The real issue is why do the people who are supposed to be writing and reporting on the “issues” on and off campus are copping out when it comes to even acknowledging that a hazing incident took place! Why is it that The Campus and Midd Blog were silent about an entire team suspension when other NESCAC publications reported on the incident? I apologize if I have my timing wrong but the Bowdoin campus publication wrote about the Midd hazing incident on February 11, long before a word was ever transcribed by The Campus or Midd Blog. I suspect Bowdoin reacted to this story and did whatever investigation they did before publishing their article without hesitation. I would characterize The Campus’ brief coverage of the story on February 17 as “cover your ass” or reactionary journalism rather than what I would think Midd students would want from their school newspaper. One of The Campus editor’s assertion in her recent February 24 “letter to the editor” that she decided “to wait for the administration to release their official statement before reporting on it” honestly falls on deaf ears. Why did another college campus elicit a response from Middlebury before our own publication? Why nothing in the web edition? I do not think anyone would suggest that the proper thing to do was to get into all of the gory details of the hazing incident but please, you are the Midd campus publications…at least report on the facts. From my understanding the cold, hard facts were crystal clear prior to February 11 and could have easily been reported without embarrassing anyone involved and without the “scandalous details” the Campus editor refers to. As this editor of The Campus recently wrote “[a]s a journalist, it is my job to research, report on and print the truth…”. Please do it before other campus publications hundreds of miles away do so for the campus. Although an apology is probably owed, honestly, the Campus and its editors probably owe Maddie Kahn a “thank you” rather than an apology for opening your collective eyes to what you all should be doing as editors of the student newspaper; researching, reporting and printing the truth. There were no conflicts here “Campus editors”. Simply put, you guys blew it!

    It’s fascinating that now The Campus is apparently doing an “investigative” story on the hazing incident. Wow! Whatever happened to Maddie Kahn’s original desire to write this piece when it should have been written! On second thought…you actually owe her an apology and a thank you.

  15. Middlebury Confessional « MiddBlog

  16. College Revises Hazing Policy | MiddBlog

  17. Middlebury Confessional | MiddBlog

Comments are closed.