Bob Ladouceur’s teams at De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) finished the season as the No. 1 team in the Super 25 football rankings five times. He stepped down as head coach last season, but is still an assistant with the Spartans and says there’s a simple method to prevent bullying on sports teams.
“When I go out and speak about doing a good job of being a coach at clinics or what not, one of my major points is in order to have your team on the right track, it takes constant vigilance as to what is going on your team,” Ladouceur said. “If you turn power over to your seniors to teach, the coach has to be aware of how you’re doing it. The coach has to be part of it. I’m all for ownership and players taking ownership, but that doesn’t mean taking allowing carte blanche and having a Lord of the Flies situation.”
On Monday, administrators at Sayreville (N.J.) War Memorial High canceled the rest of the football team’s season because of what school superintendent Dr. Richard Labbe described as “incidences of harassment, intimidation and bullying as constituted by the definition within the anti-bullying statute that took place on a pervasive level.” The Middlesex County prosecutor’s office is investigating and has declined comment, although reports have surfaced of lewd behavior by upperclassmen directed at underclassmen.
The Sayreville incident became public at the same time New Jersey schools are recognizing “Week of Respect,” a week of programming mandated by the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which was enacted in January 2011, and was touted at the time as the toughest anti-bullying law in the nation.
There have been numerous reports of hazing or bullying involving sports teams in recent years – although data does not split the instances by sport – and as former Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito showed last season, it’s not confined to high school teams.
“There is no question the incidents are reported far more often,” said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., whose academic specialty is hazing education. “There are other changes. Parents are better armed with facts about hazing when they march into a school board meeting to demand answers. Coaches have read about their peers at other schools being fired or suspended for not taking action soon enough, and so even non-criminal hazing (silly dress-ups, making players wear a silly back pack) makes the news. There is a real disconnect on males being indecently touched by other males. Some coaches and administrators rightfully report to state or local police and prosecutor for a determination. Others delay, either saying ‘boys will be boys’ or equating with old-fashioned towel snapping. But yes, the incidents are being reported far more since about 2006, and that trend has not been reversed.”
Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of Stomp Out Bullying, a nationwide anti-bullying organization, said that an estimated 13 million kids will be bullied every year, however that number is likely low because of under-reporting.
Dr. Joel Haber, an international bullying expert who runs the web site, www.respectu.com, said the nature of bullying makes accurate statistics difficult.
“We don’t have great data on that,” Haber said. “Reports are that 10 percent of kids are bullied repeatedly across the country. Those things are going to happen on sports teams too. It’s under-reported because most kids who are bullied are embarrassed about it. They don’t want to look as if they have a problem.”
Haber added the definition of bullying should be examined from the standpoint of the person being bullied.
“If someone is teased, he may not be bothered by it, but another kid might be really affected by that,” Haber said. “If someone feels distressed, you have to take that as the line and not cross it again. It has to be a real effort to understand. That’s what confuses people with the bullying problem. We don’t have a clear definition of it.”
Dr. Stuart Green, director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, said harassment and bullying tends to peak in middle school. But after that, the severity of of harassment continues to rise into high school and college.
“Who really leads and runs the environment?” Green said. “The kids don’t run the team, the adults do.”
Coach Greg Toal said he saw incidents of hazing when he first came to Don Bosco Prep (Ramsey, N.J.) in 1999.
“That’s the first thing I cleaned up,” he said. “I remember that’s what losers do. Winners care about their brothers. I never understood all the fraternity hazing stuff. I think you have to show respect for kids every day. The younger players on a team are like your little brothers. They need all the help they can get. There’s no place in football for hazing. I think as a coach, you make sure to talk to your team about it to make sure it doesn’t happen. If a kid wants to be a bully, we’ll cure that, I can guarantee you.”
Coaches in New Jersey told mycentraljersey.com that coaches can help prevent bullying through education and by always being around the team.
“We always have coaches in locker room,” Ridge coach Bill Tracy said. “If the kids are in here, we’re in here, and we work hard on our programs in the school itself, how to treat each other, anti-bullying issues. It helps that our student body is well-trained on it.”
North Hunterdon has protocols in place specifically to address interaction between freshmen and upperclassmen.
“We address the freshmen and varsity before the season — that’s one of the first things we do,” Lions coach Jared Mazzetta said. “It can be very intimidating for a freshman to be together with the seniors.We tell them what the expectations are, what they are supposed to do and not do. We have a written policy. We discuss it at the beginning of the year and go over it.”
Mazzetta said players are not allowed in the North Hunterdon locker room facility without supervision.
“The kids are not allowed in that building without us there, and freshmen and varsity practice at the same time,” he said.
Nuwer said that coaches should also encourage players to have the courage to report bullying situations.
“I’d recommend that coaches name their captains instead of having a “democratic” election,” Nuwer said. “Instead of the most stalwart stars, the coaches need to select players with character and backbone who will not only report transgressions like hazing by individual players, but actually step up as bystanders to say, ‘this is going too far — stop! ”
Ladouceur said that avoiding bullying behavior is all about developing effective leaders.
“You want to teach kids how to operate properly and efficiently in a real positive and mentoring situation,” Ladouceur said. “I like our kids teaching other kids, but that has nothing to do with rituals. It has everything to do with making kids better and understanding what a true team does. Kids will go in a lot of different directions if they don’t have proper supervision. It all boils down to a climate of your team. All coaches have to do is be present and be around and hear how the kids interact. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a natural-born leader. Players need to be taught how to lead.”
Susanne Cervenka of the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press and Harry Frezza and Jerry Carino of the Woodbridge (N.J.) Home News Tribune contributed to this story.