Vulnerability and daring: Hazing and St. Michael’s College School | Marvin Zuker
Thursday, March 04, 2021 @ 3:06 PM | By Marvin Zuker
According to a report released in August 2019 by an independent committee reviewing bullying and victimization at St. Michael’s College School, “Bullying and other demeaning behaviour do represent a systemic issue at the school, albeit in numbers comparable to the experience of children of similar age across the country.” The report states that there are “two realities:” for many “… the school has represented the very best in schooling” and “[f]or others, the school failed to ensure that they felt safe and secure or fully included.” There were 36 recommendations.
It is now 30 months later; what has been adopted? Of the 206 boys who were found to have been bullied, 54 of them, or one out of every five students, had been “sexually bullied,” or perhaps more correctly, sexually assaulted under the guise of hazing. How often did these young men hear over and over again, “All the kids get accepted when it’s over; it’s a one-time deal and it’s over, leave it alone”?
We must not leave it alone. It has been left alone long enough. It is so sad to realize that it is the youngest members of the school teams who are looking for peer acceptance from their teammates. Approval and teamwork: what a great combination for hazing.
Hazing and its deleterious effects are nothing new in Canada. Not quite 90 years ago two young men, one about to become a lawyer, the other already a lawyer, got their feet wet with the then-infamous student hazing initiation case of a freshman student in Powlett and Powlett v. University of Alberta et al.  A.J. No. 6, affirmed in part at Powlett and Powlett (Plaintiffs) Respondents v. University of Alberta et al (Defendants) Appellants  A.J. No. 14, and settled pending an appeal to the Privy Council. The law student was Wilbur Bowker, who was called to the bar in December 1933 and later to become dean of law at the university, and the lawyer, Ronald Martland, would later be appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1958, where he sat until his retirement 24 years later.
Hazing has been characterized as any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate. In McKenzie v. State 748 A.2d 67, a court in Maryland found that an anti-hazing statute defining hazing as “activities and situations…that i) recklessly or intentionally ii) subject a student to the risk of serious bodily injury iii) for the purpose of initiation into a student organization” was not void for vagueness.
Our schools have a legal duty of care to protect our students from unreasonable risks of harm. The doctrine is also known in part as that of being in loco parentis or “in place of the parents.” The relationship between our schools and our children is not simply that it provides education alone.
Hazing is a distinctive form of bullying, where one person or a group repeatedly uses power and aggression to control or intentionally hurt or intimidate another person or group.
Arka Mukherjee, Todd Loik, Rehtaeh Parsons, Jamie Hubley and Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old student from B.C. — how many more suicides do we need?
We must not immunize the conduct that has permeated St. Michael’s College School or more will be added to the list. We are both living in the history we have been handed but also shaping the one we will hand off to future students.
Hazing is secretive by its very nature. Any numbers the St. Michael’s report refers to arguably are only the tip of the iceberg. Let us not kid ourselves. Under-reporting of hazing has and will leave students unaware of the possibility that if they join the football team they may well be hazed.
Disclosure is a non-entity. The truth is that as more information is made available, the more empowered potential victims are likely to be. Education may serve to deter hazing, but where is it? We need to have the opposite of what has gone on. It is about fostering emotional concern for how one person’s actions will affect another. We must address both perpetration and victimization.
Effective prevention starts at the top; it starts as a priority; it starts with messaging in support of a much needed culture change. It is about increasing transparency and accountability.
We should not forget that circumstances of any student can affect their vulnerability. They may have been already exposed to violence as a result of their own family dynamic. There may be issues of alcohol and drug use and perhaps most of all as we have seen, a lack of connectedness to the school itself, no sense of a supportive school environment.
Knowledge again is most helpful if it informs action toward positive change. Hazing capitalizes on that dangerous intersection of vulnerability and daring. The bandwagon effect must end.
Hazing is simply systemic manipulation reflective of power inequities. There is a sense that “I know what I am doing is disgusting but I want to be accepted.”
Timothy Piazza wanted to be accepted at a fraternity at Penn State University on Feb. 2, 2017. He consumed 18 drinks in 82 minutes. He lay down, eventually got up, walked across the room he was in, fell down a flight of stairs and two days later he was dead. See Piazza v. Young, 403 F. Supp. 3d 421. The Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law took effect on Nov. 19, 2018, and redefined “hazing.”
Education, education, education to prevent victimization. That should be the mandate.
One can only begin to imagine — and we will probably never know — how many of the victims at St. Michael’s College School went through the victim-to-perpetrator cycle. Legislation such as the Education Act in Ontario must be amended to include hazing. Hazing is abuse. Section 125 of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act (CYFSA) of Ontario, S.O. 2017, c.14, Sched 1, ss. 125(5)-(9) should be amended to include hazing, if not bullying. It is about protecting our children, our students and a reflection of our moral indignation of such repugnant behaviour.
Maya Angelou wrote in her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings about her own sexual trauma when she was a child. The man who raped her went to jail, was released and was beaten to death. She believed she caused his death and she didn’t speak for five years. Bertha Flowers, a local teacher, helped her regain her voice. She told Angelou, “Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes a human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
Just like moons and like suns
With the certainty of tides
Just like hopes springing high
Still I’ll rise.
— “Still I’ll Rise,” Maya Angelou
Evolving standards of decency mandates the ending of hazing in all our schools. The days of students laying their hands on other students remain a scourge that, like the new math before it, should be consigned to our educational past. Hazing is a source of shame and embarrassment. It should end now.
Marvin Zuker was a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, where he presided over the small claims, family and criminal courts from 1978 until his retirement in 2016. He is associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, where he teaches education law. Zuker is the author and co-author of many books and publications, including The Law is Not for Women and The Law is (Not) for Kids.
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