Globe Editorial

Needham parents should work with high school, not against it

November 12, 2010

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THE NEEDHAM parents who hired lawyers to challenge the high school’s suspension of their daughters should take a deep breath. The grounds for the suspensions — hazing new players on the girls’ soccer team — are reasonable in a state understandably concerned that such rites of passage can easily become dangerous. The extent of the school’s actions — removing the players not only from competition, on the eve of a playoff game, but from classes as well — may be debatable, depending on the facts to emerge from the case. Officials have said that no students were injured, but it’s not yet clear whether any were endangered, or why officials felt that lesser punishments wouldn’t suffice.

While awaiting an explanation, the parents should have opted to work with administrators in a cooperative fashion, helping to generate a full account of what was undoubtedly a complicated set of events. By instead choosing to lawyer up and demand a court injunction, the parents turned a school disciplinary matter into a major legal fracas, almost guaranteeing that a complete explanation of what happened would be a long time coming. Their insistence that their daughters would be irreparably harmed by missing out on a playoff game smacks of misplaced priorities. Hazing is a crime in Massachusetts, and the parents’ first goal should be to find out what happened.

This much has been reported: The high school’s student handbook clearly forbids students from engaging in initiation rites, so the students were forewarned that such rituals were wrong, even if secret tradition whispered otherwise. (It is unclear whether the coach, who was placed on leave, knew about the tradition.) The older students allegedly blindfolded their younger teammates, put them in dog collars, and hit them with pies. Ten students were suspended.

These types of rites are common on sports teams and in college fraternities and sororities. In most cases, the people involved feel that they are participating in a bonding exercise, and that nothing abusive is going on. But longstanding experience has shown that even benign-seeming rituals can become dangerous, and sometimes deadly. The youngsters being hazed are often rendered powerless and exposed to psychological and physical abuse. Educators are right to be vigilant.

This is not to say that suspending students from classes, as well as competition, would be justified in every case. The girls involved in this incident are, by most accounts, good kids who didn’t feel they were doing anything wrong. Everyone involved should be sensitive to the potential damage done to a student who is either wrongly accused or subjected to inappropriate punishment. In a different kind of bullying situation, when a youngster is ostracized and picked on, school officials have to act quickly, and even sometimes precipitously, to stop the harm. In a hazing incident like this one, with no imminent risk of the ritual being repeated, there should be time for all voices to be heard.

That’s all the more reason why the parents should have cooperated with school officials, in a true community spirit, to obtain a full explanation and a just outcome. The pending playoff game wasn’t important enough to justify such an extreme reaction by so many adults, whose decisions in seeking an injunction served to teach their daughters less about truth and justice than about pride and petulance.