The principal of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School said she tried for years to rein in hazing during homecoming week. One day each fall, older students would shower ninth-graders with paint, pelt them with ketchup, yell “Go back to Westland!” — the local middle school — and occasionally rough them up.
Karen Lockard banned spray paint on campus. She brought in an anti-bullying expert for an assembly. She encouraged classroom discussions about values.
None of that stopped this year’s Color Day spirit event from becoming, once again, “freshman beat-down day.” One student went to a hospital after being assaulted, and many wound up plastered in paint. It got so out of hand that Lockard canceled next year’s Color Day. “It’s hard to change tradition,” she said.
The episode last month in Montgomery County underscored that hazing persists in Washington area high schools, despite efforts to stamp it out.
“Whether you call it hazing or rites of passage, I’ve seen unacceptable behavior in high schools,” said Montgomery Superintendent Joshua P. Starr. “Our older kids should be helping our younger students succeed in school, not making them feel afraid.”
In Arlington County, high school principals sent a letter home in September asking parents to help discourage any kind of “Initiation Day, Freshmen Beat Up Day, or Hazing Day.”
“We recognize that times have changed, and some incidents that were not taken as seriously some years ago are now viewed in a very different way,” they wrote, saying that anyone “involved in the bullying, hitting, chasing or hurting of another student faces serious disciplinary action, including suspension.”
Officials said they have made progress. But parents and alumni wonder how hazing survives at all.
“I’m really sad that it’s come to this,” said Spencer Weinreich, a 2011 graduate of B-CC. He said he protested Color Day every year after he was hurt and humiliated as a freshman. Weinreich recalled telling himself after a junior punched him in the arm: “Don’t flinch. Don’t show weakness. Just survive the day.”
Hazing amplifies the embedded high school pecking order. Seniors rule, and freshmen — at least those on television — get slammed into lockers. Each triumph or trial is perceived as a badge of growing up.
Such traditions pose challenges for administrators, because students are often willing or enthusiastic participants. Many B-CC students said they looked forward to Color Day every year.
A national survey of college freshmen in 2008 found that nearly half reported participating in high school activities such as being asked to sing or chant in front of a group, being deprived of sleep, or being yelled at as a new member of a group. But most respondents did not associate the behavior with hazing.
“At least on the surface, it’s all about being included,” said Elizabeth Allan of the University of Maine, a lead researcher on the study. But even seemingly harmless antics, she said, “can set the stage for other forms of hazing or abuse.”
Nationwide, lawsuits and complaints related to high school hazing rose from 33 in 2000 to 277 last year, said Lee Green, a sports law expert at Baker University in Kansas. He said that more victims are stepping forward.
In Charles County, five high school wrestlers were charged in 2009 with misdemeanors on suspicion of taping a teammate to a bus seat and photographing him. In Fairfax County, two Robinson Secondary School swimming coaches lost their jobs last year after an alleged hazing incident in a locker room.
School officials have said in recent years that they have spelled out anti-hazing rules; trained coaches, teachers and principals; and encouraged inclusive and welcoming activities.
At Annandale High School in Fairfax, a traditional initiation for swim team members was a “rude awakening” in which older teammates roused newcomers from sleep with cold water or loud music, dressed them in outrageous clothes and took them to school. Starting last winter, the swimmers instead shared a family-friendly team breakfast.
Many graduates of Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery remember freshmen roaming the halls with an “F” on their forehead. But today’s students say such branding is not tolerated. Montgomery student-athletes also sign an agreement before tryouts that says they will not haze others.
Bill Curran, student activities and athletic director in Fairfax, said training has improved. “All that said, these are 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds, and we are dependent on their behavior.”
Matthew Ragone, principal at Langley High School in Fairfax, knows how hard it can be to take on tradition.
At Langley, Color Day was so unruly that the CIA director at the time, George J. Tenet, mentioned the tradition in a 2001 commencement address, congratulating graduates for letting the day pass without a food fight.
In 2008, his first year as principal, Ragone said he was shocked by what he saw.
Even before school started, he had to send home dozens of students who were smothered in ketchup, mustard, anchovy paste and shaving cream. “Freshmen were running around scared,” he said.
By day’s end, he was fielding phone calls from parents whose children had been assaulted and had also received an estimate for replacing a local resident’s flagstone walkway, which had been painted in Langley school colors.
It took him three years to turn the event around. Many alumni and parents urged him not to abandon the tradition, and students said it was the most fun day of the year.
Shawn Ghuman, a 2010 Langley graduate, recalled that early on one Color Day, some older girls came to his house and woke him up. They drove him to school, decorated him with red paint and photographed him holding a sign that read “Slave of ’08.”
“It was one of the best days of my life,” he said.
Ragone said he had to teach students that “fun could be had in different ways.”
He invited the student government to plan alternate spirit week events. The group devised a carnival, a powder puff game and a Color Day in which all students would wear the same color.
There were modest improvements. But last fall, Color Day devolved into chaos, with damaged property, minor injuries, and a paint-and-food fight in the cafeteria involving hundreds of students.
Ragone canceled an afternoon pep rally, telling parents in a letter that “it would not be safe to congregate in a large group.”
This fall, he said, contrite students embraced a new start.Most wore the recommended black T-shirts, and fewer than 10 paint-stained teens had to be sent home. Teachers, long frustrated by Color Day antics, got into the spirit and organized a “flash mob,” or surprise dance routine, to entertain the teens.
At B-CC, Weinreich said, he wore black on Color Day as a sophomore and junior to protest hazing. In his senior year, he donned white in solidarity with freshmen. “No one has a right to make you feel unwelcome in your own school,” he said.
During that day’s pep rally, most seniors bounded into the gym in blue and gold. When Weinreich passed the freshmen bleachers, he stopped, pumped his fist and led a cheer for the Class of 2014.