Athletic Director Kelli Kurle waited in her office. First a parent entered, then a runner. Next came a coach, another runner, then a parent again. Thirty times through, she interrogated the boys cross country runners and their parents about what really happened Aug. 21.
As for their punishment, she’d made her decision: they were never to run cross country again.
“I made [the consequence] severe that first Saturday because any time there’s an accusation like that, I just shut down everything until I can investigate further,” Kurle said.
As the story evolved, so did the consequence. With further examination, the suspension was reduced to a year. And with even more information, it became two weeks
“Initially when I got the bullying report it was ‘I’m kicking every kid off cross country’,” Principal John McKinney said. “It clearly stepped over the line of good-natured fun, and stepped over into verbal abuse, harassment [and] denigration. Not only was it a violation of the East code of conduct, it was a violation of the anti-hazing policy of the district.”
The policy, stated in the student handbook, asserts that “Hazing is any action or activity, with or without consent from a person, whether conducted on or off Shawnee Mission School District property…designated to or has the foreseeable effect of humiliation, denigration, offending, physically or mentally abusing or exposing danger [to] a person.”
It also states that “There will be no initiation ceremonies, intimidation, or hazing of students…violators will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including expulsion from school.”
On Aug. 21, the boys cross country team went for a run. Varsity athletes and administration declined to release details, however, freshmen were hazed. The next morning a bullying report was filed, and head cross country coach, Tricia Beaham, suspended both passive and active participants.
In the weeks following, 15-20 JV runners filled the varsity seeds, and coaches and athletes building-wide are forced to ask the question: where is the line drawn between tradition and hazing?
Junior Diego Galicia made JV in time trials. Now, quads engulfed in flames, he was running a varsity race. With the top runners on a two-week suspension, he and the rest of JV had to take their place. But bodies flew past him. He was nervous, and he couldn’t match the other runners’ pace.
The 77th of 83 runners to reach the finish line, Galicia wondered how he had gotten so far behind. For the next two weeks, he would wear the varsity jersey, run the varsity races and bear the varsity name because of a violation.
Or was it, rather, because of a tradition?
“The seniors started [hazing] my sophomore year,” East Cross Country alumnus Jimmy Kinney said. “And the next year’s seniors kept it going, so it kind of turned into a tradition.”
In years past, Kinney says, cross country boys would run a specific route known as “the horse run”, attempt the gallon challenge, and the cinnamon challenge. Each year, he says, certain traditions are upheld and others are changed.
This motive – upholding tradition – is what Kurle and Caroline Danda, a cognitive behavioral psychologist, believe is the rationale behind hazing.
“Tradition subsumes ideas such as repeating hazing because that is what has always been done,” Danda said. “[Like] getting ‘your turn’ to haze after it happened to you, and going along with the group.”
According to Kurle, traditions are embedded throughout the school, within every group.
Head soccer coach Jamie Kelly says that, following the suspension, parents of runners accused the rest of the sports teams, including soccer, of practicing traditions that may be considered hazing.
“I’ve talked to the boys already, and I’ll talk to the girls come spring, and say ‘look what happened’ [to cross country]” Kelly said. “There are traditions, but the idea is to [have traditions] to make [freshman and sophomores] feel apart of team. It’s just hard to find that fine line between humiliating and just messing around.”
So when does horseplay become hazing?
According to stophazing.org, 47 percent of high school students will have experienced hazing by the end of their senior year, yet only 16 percentage will have considered themselves to have been hazed.
Knowing the difference between hazing, horseplay and sustaining tradition, to McKinney, is the first step in making that distinction.
“Establishing that point where it goes from kids giving each other a hard time [to] becoming a violation of East’s code of conduct,” McKinney said, “is whenever the parties involved feel that [the initiation] has changed from playing around, to an act of harassing or abuse.”
And more often than not, students are unable to make that establishment, McKinney says. To him, that’s where the presence of an adult must surface.
“We’re all mandated reporters,” McKinney said. “Once we become aware of something, then it’s on us to do something about it. But we can’t do anything about something we don’t know about.”
So, through the Bully Referral app, by sending an email, making a phone call or scheduling a meeting with an adult, victims or witnesses can inform authorities of these instances.
“It can be hard to break traditions,” Danda said. “Change is difficult; however, alternatives exist to hazing. Being part of creating team identity within the school, [can push groups] to do their best.”