In October 2015, a black, mentally disabled high school football player in Idaho was brutally attacked by three white teammates in the school locker room. Before practice, he testified, two of his assailants gave him "a power wedgie" that tore his boxers. Later on, another teammate asked the victim for a hug. He was then assaulted by the two teenage boys who'd given him the wedgie: One stuck a coat hanger in his rectum, and another kicked it "five or six" times.
"I screamed," the victim told the court. "I was pretty upset. I felt really bad. A little bit betrayed and confused at the same time. It was terrible — a pain I've never felt."
The player who kicked the hanger, John RK Howard, had previously taunted the victim with racial epithets. He was initially charged with felony forcible sexual penetration by use of a foreign object, but ultimately avoided prison time by pleading down to felony count of injury to a child. A lawsuit filed by the family against Dietrich High School and 11 employees alleged that coaches and school administrators ignored the months of abuse the victim endured.
The horrific attack was cited as a recent example of teammate-on-teammate sexual assaults in public schools. Even more disturbing is the fact that too often, attacks in sports-related settings are mislabeled as "hazing" and "bullying" by officials handling the cases. According to the Associated Press' latest, gut-wrenching report on its expansive investigation on student sexual assault—in which they discovered about 17,000 official reports of sexual assault by students in grades K-12 over a recent four-year period—boys made up the majority of aggressors and victims in these incidents, and some were seriously hurt and traumatized. The report notes that the actual tally is likely much higher, as elementary and middle schools are not nationally required to keep track of acts of sexual assault, and many incidences go under-reported.
Forcing younger players into doing some kind of humiliating task as a form of initiation isn't anything new, but according to experts the AP talked to, the inclusion of sexual violence in these acts has escalated over the last 10 to 15 years. "Although many of the cases AP identified included anal penetration, grabbing crotches or grinding genitals into teammates, those who often first learn of incidents — coaches, school officials — routinely characterize them as hazing, bullying or initiations," the AP reports.
Characterizing sexual assault as hazing minimizes the severity of these incidents, and sexual assault is sexual assault, says Joel Levin, director of programs and co-founder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS). When schools label these incidents as hazing and bullying, that suggests "it's a tradition rite, that it goes back years and years at these schools, that it's a rite of passage," he explains to Broadly. "Coaches look the other way, teachers look the other way, and they say, well, this is part of tradition and it's team-building."
"But actually," he continues, "it causes a lot of damage. It's not just the incident itself, but it's the follow-up. The victims are told not to say anything about it for fear of being retaliated against. They're hushed up and they carry this around with them for years."
If people knew how prevalent sexual harassment and sexual assault are in the lower grades, they would understand that it doesn't begin the moment people go to college.
The fact that students don't feel comfortable enough to report when they've been harassed or assaulted reveals "there's something wrong with the culture of schools," says Esther Warkov, SSAIS executive director and co-founder. "If schools were Title IX compliant and they had a trauma-informed response to sexual harassment, and it was clear that there was a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, let alone sexual assault, we'd see a lot more success in being able to rid schools of this kind of behavior."
Warkov says one way to address this cultural phenomenon is for schools to promote a message of healthy masculinity, which is one of the issues discussed in SSAIS's recent educational video on sexual harassment, aimed at helping students understand their civil rights under Title IX. But, she adds, schools have to want to take responsibility for the environment it's fostered.
Educating students as early as elementary and middle school would have long-term impact, Warkov says. "It's really impossible to address campus sexual assault if you don't address it in high school or middle school or elementary school," she explains, "because this is the training ground. If people knew how prevalent sexual harassment and sexual assault are in the lower grades, they would understand that it doesn't begin the moment people go to college. If we have sexual assault in the workplace, it's because students are learning how to practice sexual harassment in the lower grades, and they're getting away with it."