Alice Haben has spoken to many audiences about her son's 1990 death during an alcohol-soaked initiation ritual, and last month she shared her devastating story again, hoping to teach students at Oswego High School in a Chicago suburb about the danger of hazing.
But when her talk was over, it was clear some of the teens still didn't get it.
They broke into small clusters to talk about hazing, and after a few minutes of discussion, some concluded that though the act could be destructive, it also had the potential for good. Hazing can forge strong bonds and bring groups together, they said. "We're kind of undecided," one student said.
This confusion comes as no surprise to experts, who say it illustrates the psychological complexity of hazing and the lack of education on the subject. Though Illinois compels schools to teach students about bullying, there is no such requirement for hazing.
Teens "don't have any outside guidance saying this is wrong," said Mary Madden, a University of Maine education professor who, in a 2008 study, found that nearly half of high school students have been hazed. "Kids need help with understanding what hazing is. They need clear messages from adults that this is not acceptable behavior."
Two Chicago-area high schools have faced scrutiny for alleged hazing rituals this school year. The Hoffman Estates High School boys' basketball team forfeited three games after reports of a violent initiation came to light, while allegations of sexually aggressive attacks within Maine West's soccer and baseball teams have led to a lawsuit, a criminal investigation and the removal of two coaches.
Meanwhile, David Bogenberger, of Palatine, a village in Cook County, Ill., a 19-year-old freshman fraternity pledge at Northern Illinois University, died after allegedly drinking heavily during a November initiation party. Twenty-two Pi Kappa Alpha members face criminal charges, and Bogenberger's family is suing the fraternity.
School districts around Chicago typically ban hazing in their disciplinary codes, though specifics vary.
The Maine West district has hired a consultant, California-based Community Matters, to conduct focus groups on hazing and suggest new approaches to combat the practice. Rick Phillips, the group's founder, said he views hazing, bullying and harassment as different branches of the same poisonous tree, and tries to address all of them by encouraging students to tell someone when they witness abusive behavior.
"In most cases, kids know what's happening, but they don't speak up," he said. "Part of the program is to get kids to think it's in their own self-interest to speak up when they know something's wrong."
Some experts, though, say that simply recognizing hazing can be a challenge for teens.
Susan Lipkins, a New York psychologist who has written a book on the subject, said young people often can't put a name to what they've been through. Some have told her that they've been beaten, humiliated or otherwise harmed as part of an initiation rite, yet when she asks if they've been hazed, they say no.
Hank Nuwer, a hazing expert at Indiana's Franklin College, said that after he gives presentations on the subject, some students will insist that their rituals are necessary to keep younger teammates in line.
"Hazing has an awful lot of built-in justification to it," he said. "It's part of the groupthink. There may even be athletes or [fraternity] pledges who seem to be enjoying it. The camaraderie that's part of it leads to a lot of self-deceiving."
Oswego High School does not include hazing education as part of the curriculum, but it invited Haben to speak as part of a program intended to create a kinder and more inclusive atmosphere at the school. Her son Nick was an Oswego alumnus who died after being compelled to drink heavily during an initiation to the Western Illinois University lacrosse club.
Speaking to dozens of students, Haben said that not all hazing is as clear as the ritual that claimed her son's life. Any abusive or degrading practice carried out as the price of membership in a group — regardless of whether a person agrees to it — meets the definition, she said.