The Board of Education Monday night called for the administration to create a plan within 60 days to end high school hazing and called for sensitivity training for the high school community.
The directive came after allegations a group of senior girls hazed a group of freshmen girls, including shoving them into a locker and blowing whistles in their faces. The hazing allegations also included what was entitled a "slut list," describing the 13 and 14-year-olds using graphic language.
"We need to demand it stops," said Noreen Brunini, board president. "It cannot happen again."
The board has a policy against bullying and hazing, she said, and things need to change. "It's not acceptable behavior," she said.
Workshops on hazing and sensitivity training need to be held with the high school administrators, staff and students, she said, and the board's attorney can oversee those workshops.
There also needs to be a protective place or system where students can be advocates for themselves "without committing social suicide," she said.
Jeff Waters, school board member, said the role of the board is to set policy and to hire a superintendent, who is directed to carry out those policies. It's up to the administration to carry out the day-to-day operations, but the school board needs to follow up when the policies are not followed correctly.
He compared the tradition of hazing to the squeegee men who harassed motorists in New York City before the city cracked down on the practice. If the small crimes are not stopped, they can become a larger problem, he said.
"This is our community and our children," he said. "It's our job to take control of this."
Debra Fox, a board member, said she believes it's not important for the board to say they have a zero tolerance for hazing. They also need to act like it, she said. She said school officials should punish all the seniors because that would force out the girls who are at fault.
"We need to tell our students that hazing is not cool," she said. "It's cruel."
Michael Birnberg, a board member, said it's important for school board members to step up not to protect this year's freshmen but for the future groups of freshmen. But he said he didn't share the optimism that the hazing will end. "I believe it will continue," he said. "I hope I'm wrong."
Scott Kamber, the school board vice president, said he doesn't believe there is a zero tolerance for hazing because it has happened every year for 17 years. "School must be a place that is a learning environment where everyone feels safe," he said.
It falls on the administration, though, to stop what is "not a healthy tradition," he said. Freshmen who are hazed, he said, will feel empowered to do it when they are seniors.
Lise Chapman, a board member, said school officials need to find a way to empower students to stand up for themselves. It's not O.K. for anyone to be harassed, she said.
"It's not cute," she said. "It's not funny. It's not O.K."
School board members heard from several parents about the issue.
Pam Kruger, a parent, said she was stunned when she read the stories about the hazing on her e-mail listserv, and she feels the administration needs to admit to some failure. The administration has sent home notices about swine flu and other issues, but never sent anything home about hazing or this specific issue. Friends only learned about the issue once they asked their children, she said.
The problem should not be treated as a new one every year, she said, but rather a culture of hazing that is an institution of gender-based harassment. School officials need to set up a task force to address hazing and become a leader in eliminating it, she said.
Bill Kelly, a parent, expressed anger that school officials have not found the proof to punish the group of seniors behind the hazing. He said school officials are not looking hard enough for the proof.
"You failed yourselves, you failed us, the taxpayers, and you failed our kids by not protecting them," he said.
During Monday's meeting Schools Supt. Richard Brodow and Millburn High School Principal William Miron spoke about what happened before the first day of school.
Brodow said the incident is bringing "undue shame" to a student population that has otherwise given every reason to make everyone proud. "The actions of a few are not representative of the whole," he said.
Miron said everyone agrees the behavior is unacceptable and said he doesn't care if it's hundreds of incidents or just two or three. No incident of hazing should be tolerated, he said.
The actions of a few students were wrong, Miron said, but he added that the students don't deserve everything that has been said about them. One student, who is a senior student athlete, was near tears because of the things being said about the senior girls.
Miron detailed all of the efforts he and other school administrators made leading up to the Sept. 8 opening of school. In August, he and Athletics Director Ted D'Alessio visited with the sports teams and spoke about hazing. Miron said he told students not to do it, to discourage it and to distance themselves from those who may do it.
The high school faculty met on Sept. 1 and were told to be vigilant on the first day of school for signs of hazing. Additionally, Miron said, the female faculty members were told to check in the female restrooms for the "slut list" distribution.
Last year, school officials also created a coalition of school officials, law enforcement, M-MAC, recreation officials and others on how to deal with issues of substance abuse and bullying. The coalition helped create a new extra-curricular policy that, among other things, addressed issues of hazing, Miron said. The coalition will re-convene in October.
By the time school started in September, Miron said, high school administrators felt they had taken all the steps they could.
They are looking to talk to the junior girls before the end of the school year, he said, and they are considering enacting a big sister-little sister type of program. They're also examining possibly changing how the first day of school is handled, Miron said. One of those things is to possibly censor the senior car decorating contest and banning whistles, he said.
They're also talking about students and parents signing a pledge against hazing, Miron said. Student athletes already sign a similar pledge, he said.