HETRICK: Men and boys behaving badly from Carmel to D.C.

May 22, 2010

So there I sat at my kitchen table, researching a column on four former Carmel High School basketball players whose alleged locker-room and back-of-the-bus torment of fellow student-athletes went “beyond hazing” (the prosecutor’s words) to 13 misdemeanor counts of battery and criminal recklessness.

When I learned of these crimes, several people said to me, “What were they thinking?”

In my research, I learned about the perpetrators. I learned about the Carmel coaches who left their jobs in the scandal’s wake. I read about hazing in colleges, fraternities, sororities, high schools, middle schools, athletic teams, arts groups and more.

Then I read about the roots and causes of hazing; our societal, parental and organizational struggles to stop it; and what we ought to do better.

One hurdle is that too few people understand what constitutes hazing. The Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group, which advises and insures many fraternities and sororities, defines hazing this way:

“Any action taken or situation created intentionally … to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule. Such activities may include but are not limited to the following: use of alcohol; paddling in any form; creation of excessive fatigue; physical and psychological shocks; quests, treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, road trips, or any other such activities carried on outside or inside of the confines of the chapter house; wearing of public apparel which is conspicuous and not normally in good taste; engaging in public stunts and buffoonery; morally degrading or humiliating games and activities; and any other activities which are not consistent with fraternal law, ritual or policy or the regulations and policies of the educational institution.”

A high school hazing study published in 2000 by Alfred University researchers Nadine Hoover and Norman Pollard put it this way:

“Joining groups is a basic human need. Forming a sense of identity and belonging is a major developmental task for teenagers. Children of high school age, however, are just learning to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. They need healthy adult supervision, role modeling and guidance, without which initiation may easily go awry. When groups employ humiliation and danger to initiate new members into their groups, it becomes hazing.”

In the course of my reading, I ran across one possible explanation for adolescent misbehavior: medical and psychological research suggesting that adolescent brains aren’t as developed as adults’ brains.

That notion even made it into a Supreme Court decision last week, one that banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder.

In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy quoted a previous court decision regarding juveniles’ “lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility.”

Citing friend-of-the-court briefs from the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and others, Kennedy said that, “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds. For example, parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through late adolescence.”

Kennedy also cited cases showing juveniles “are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure” and that their characters are “not as well formed” as adults’.

“A juvenile is not absolved of his responsibility for his action,” Kennedy said, “but his transgression is ‘not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.’”

In a December 2009 conversation with The New York Times, Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg, one of the leading U.S. experts on adolescent behavior and adolescent brain biology, reached a similar conclusion.

“Teenagers are not crazy,” Steinberg said, “They’re different … We know from our lab that adolescents are more impulsive, thrill-seeking, more drawn to the rewards of a risky decision than adults. They tend to not focus very much on costs. They are more easily coerced to do things they know are wrong.”

As I reached this point in my research, news broke that Indiana congressman Mark Souder was resigning. Seems he’d done something he knew was wrong, too: He’d had an affair with a staff member.

Several people sent me e-mails. “What was he thinking?” they said.

I went to Souder’s website. I found a page called “Family Issues.” It said, “I believe that Congress must fight to uphold the traditional values that undergird the strength of our nation. The family plays a fundamental role in our society. Studies consistently demonstrate that it is best for a child to have a mother and father, and I am committed to preserving traditional marriage, the union of one man and one woman.”

Another Souder web page said, “Mark married the former Diane Zimmer of South Bend in 1974. They have three grown children … and two grandchildren.”

After reading that, I wanted to ask Justice Kennedy and Dr. Steinberg if they’re absolutely, positively sure there’s a difference between adolescent brains and adult brains.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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