Parents have been raising concerns about the hazing of freshmen girls at Millburn High School, but school officials are running into what Schools Supt. Richard Brodow calls a "conspiracy of silence."
There has been talk around Millburn-Short Hills about the incident on the first day of school when senior girls allegedly hazed and bullied select freshmen girls. Freshman girls were required to wear camouflage shirts. Whistles were blown in their ears. The freshmen were pushed into lockers. And there was a "slut" list circulated with sexual details about the freshmen. Millburn-Short Hills Patch has received phone calls from parents and seen e-mails about the alleged incident. None of those parents, however, were willing to go on record with their complaints.
Brodow Friday confirmed the incident and said he wanted to "get it out in the open."
"This is something that has gone on for 15 years to varying degrees, but never to where there were so many concerns," he said. "One incident is too much. I'm glad it's come to the surface."
School officials have spoken to the students about the incident, Brodow said, and asked for victims or witnesses to come forward.
"But there is a conspiracy of silence," he said. "We want to punish them, but no one has come forward. We need to break this cycle of nonsense. It is beneath us."
Millburn High School Principal Bill Miron said it's been frustrating because no one is coming forward about the incident. Also, the faculty did not see anything that first day, he said.
The high school administration also has heard from parents, but those reports have been, for the most part, anonymous, he said. The first day of school around 1 p.m., he said, he received his first report from an anonymous parent whose daughter had described the high school as "horrific."
"When we have evidence, we respond," he said. "Everyone is saying they know who it is, but no one is coming forward to us and saying who. We can't act when there are no substantial reports."
Some are saying the girls are afraid to come forward because of their safety, but Miron said anyone who comes forward to report the problems would have their identity protected.
This school year marks Brodow's eighth with the district, and he said most years there is nary a word about what appears to be a tradition of first day of school hazing. Three years ago there were some concerns, but not to the degree it was this year, Brodow said.
Miron said there have been incidents in the past, not just on the first day of school, in which the administration has reacted. There were six or seven isolated incidents of bullying last school year in which students were suspended, he said.
On the first day of school in the past, there have been senior girls suspended for their actions, Miron said. But in all of those instances, he said, there was proof.
Freshmen were asked to dress up in a humiliating, embarrassing way, and they were asked to change, he said. In other years, freshmen were required to wear sticky-notes that said things like "kick me." Seniors who were spotted with sticky-notes in those years were suspended, he said.
"Harmless fun is O.K. so long as it stays harmless," Brodow said. "But it escalates, and it escalated here."
Everyone was a kid once and wants them to have their fun, Brodow said. "But it's gone beyond that," he said. "We don't want this to become worse where someone gets hurt."
At this point, the high school administration is not expecting students to come forward to name the culprits in the incident, Miron said. "It would be nice," he said. "But if they didn't come forward that first week, we're probably not going to hear anything."
The school's hazing and bullying policy, mentioned in the high school student handbook, makes it clear that there is no tolerance for hazing. The handbook describes hazing as "rituals that involve rights of passage (ie. freshmen entering the high school) and initiations (athletic teams, etc.). Students are coerced to participate in inappropriate activities they do not freely choose to do."
According to the handbook, students who violate the policy can face three to nine days of suspension depending on the severity of the offense. Their actions may also be referred to the police, the schools superintendent. The students may also be referred for a psychological examination and face possible expulsion from school.
Miron said the administration will usually suspend someone who violates the policy three to five days. There are times a student has been suspended for one day, he said.
Brodow said there are plans to send home a separate letter about the policy before the 2010-'11 school year.
Miron said the school administration could crack down on the first day of school activities, which include a senior car decorating contest. "Maybe that rambunctiousness leads to other things," he said.
Brodow said school officials may also speak to current eighth graders and high school juniors at the end of the school year about how hazing is not tolerated. But part of the problem is that plans for the hazing are discussed by students outside of school during the summer, he said. Parents will need to step in and help, he said. "We can't do it alone."
Brodow issued a letter to parents via e-mail on Friday. The letter will also appear in the upcoming Millburn High School PTO newsletter.
The Board of Education meets Monday at 7:45 p.m. at the Education Center. Brodow intends to speak about the topic during his report at the meeting.
Millburn High School Principal William Miron could not be reached for comment immediately.
Brodow's letter to parents follows.
For those of you who read my monthly remarks you know that for the very most part my words convey my appreciation and pride in the accomplishments of our students and faculty. This time, however, I feel compelled to address the matter of hazing. Permit me to state in the clearest way possible that any so called "ritual" which in any way threatens, degrades or makes any youngster feel intimidated or less than whole is a violation of school policy and just plain wrong. We are encouraging any student who either has been a victim of or a witness to such behavior to please come forward. Those who are found to have engaged in this type of behavior will be disciplined. Parents, along with school personnel must make it perfectly clear that hazing is wrong and we as a school community are better than that. Let not the actions of a few speak for the goodness of the many.