Communities need to talk about bullying and racist, antisemitic and homophobic incidents when it happens not only to identify the problem but to learn ways to address it, a panel of experts hosted by U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Salem, concluded on Wednesday evening.
“The theme here seems to be we have to have more conversations,” Moulton said, before indirectly bringing up one of the reasons for the session: the recent revelations that members of the Danvers High School hockey team were engaging in repeated hazing that involved forcing other team members to utter racist slurs or be beaten with a sex toy, and take off their clothing and underwear on what they called “Gay Tuesdays.”
“What is the appropriate balance between communicating with the community and being aware that sometimes doing so promotes copycats or that there’s a need to protect privacy?” Moulton asked.
“We struggle with this all the time,” said Robert Trestan, New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Do you actually want to give a public platform to someone who committed an act of hate? I actually think it’s much more important to be transparent. If you’re a parent or you have a child in your life and that child goes to school ... if there’s an act of hatred, an assault, anything that’s going to impact my child’s safety, physical or mental health, I want to know about it. I think transparency trumps those other considerations.”
And with kids living much of their lives on social media, “a coach in 2022 doesn’t need to just be aware of what’s going on on the ice,” he said. Coaches, teachers, administrators all also “need to know if they’re communicating on an app or on social media.”
While a full press release isn’t always the way to approach every incident Trestan said, given the pervasiveness of social media, “if a school doesn’t communicate, you can be sure someone out there has some inkling of what happened and they’re going to put it out there ... someone else controls the narrative.”
“If we’re transparent, it gives parents, guardians, mentors, coaches a chance to talk about it,” said Faustina Cuevas, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer for the city of Lynn. “What are we going to do when we see it?”
Dan Lebowitz, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for Sport in Society, said it’s vital to create what he calls “empowered bystanders” who know how to respond when they see such incidents.
“Generally when you’re on a sports team (involved in hazing) or in a crowd you lose a sense of accountability,” Lebowitz said. “You’re in a circle going, ‘fight, fight, fight’ ... a kid, generally, in that moment, is frozen.”
Lebowitz said he recommends and teaches “giving people a skill set, a tool box, so they have the skills to step in and deflect that situation.”
“I think it starts with practice,” said Deb Ansourlian, executive director of Girls Inc. of Lynn. “We can’t assume they already know how to react in those situations.”
Another aspect is training staff to look for signs of bullying or hazing, she said.
Cuevas said getting involved doesn’t always come easily to people.
“I think we need to make them more comfortable with speaking up in the face of injustice,” said Cuevas. “We have this mentality of ‘I’m just going to mind my own business.’ We can no longer afford to do that.”
Cuevas said adults need to be able to encourage younger people to feel comfortable coming forward as well. “They might not feel equipped to interrupt an incident or to address it themselves but if they have a trusted adult they can go to and say, ‘Hey, I witnessed this,’” it is a start.
“Dialogue and conversation is part of prevention and part of the healing in the aftermath,” said Trestan. “It’s really giving young people, in middle school, in high school, some knowledge, some confidence, some skill building, so we’re not suffering, as Faustina (Cuevas) put it, the repercussions of not responding. We need to make sure leaders, particularly in schools right now, are responding.”
Lebowitz said adults need to pause and look at the world through the eyes of young people, in particular those who, for example, might be the only person of color on a team. “How does the world come at them?”
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis