Experts say it's crucial to bring up the topic early—middle school is not too soon—and regularly. Start conversations by explaining that hazing isn't in the eye of the beholder. In other words, just because someone agrees to be humiliated doesn't mean it's okay, says Brian Crow, an associate professor of sport management at Slippery Rock University, in Pennsylvania, who has studied hazing in athletic teams and speaks out against it. "In states that have antihazing laws, a child's willingness to be hazed is no justification." Explain in simple language that it's important to stop incidents before they start, because while you understand not all hazing is horrible, your concern is the way seemingly harmless rites can escalate without warning. "Emphasize that no one ever means for anyone to end up in the hospital, or worse," says Lipkins. "But sometimes in groups, it's as if kids pass through some secret door—like going to Pleasure Island in Pinocchio—and leave their values behind."
For parents of kids thinking of participating in sports, many schools organize Q&A sessions, which provide a forum for asking coaches how they plan to deal with hazing, were it to occur. Yes, your teen might be mortified, but Lipkins says it's vital to send that message of concern. "Otherwise, it's the same code of silence that has surrounded hazing for so long."
These sessions are also likely to give you a feel for how seriously coaches take the issue. "Maybe he'll say something like, 'It's not hazing when we make the freshmen carry the water or clean the locker room—that's team building.' But if that were the case, each class would take turns," says Crow.
If you have concerns or suspicions, don't be afraid to call the coach, athletic director or school principal. The potential cost is too great. "Hazing will not build your child's character," Stieber says. "Nor is this the age to step back and let him fight his own battles."
But be aware that the possibility of a backlash is real. The National Conference on High School Hazing reports that in 40% of cases, kids believe that a coach or adviser was aware of the hazing. In that kind of situation, says Lipkins, things can get ugly fast. "The school and community may band together to turn on the victims and blame them."
Matt Weymouth can vouch for that. Nine years ago, when he was 15 and a student at Pentucket Regional High School in Massachusetts, Matt was sodomized at a football training camp. Initially he was scared silent, but as stories began to circulate, a vice principal confronted Matt, who finally admitted to what had happened. That started an ordeal that ultimately included threats against his family, a lawsuit and his leaving school for safety reasons and being taught by tutors.
Yet discussing the problem openly is the only solution. "The year after I spoke up, 50 more guys went out for football," Weymouth says. "They knew they didn't have to be afraid anymore. To me, that makes what I went through worthwhile."