May 16, 2003

Courts should punish hazers

As anybody who has wandered within six feet of a Red Eye or Red Streak probably knows, a giant hazing incident took place earlier this month. Senior girls invited junior girls to a secluded location, then punched and slapped them, and threw pig and fish innards, blood, beer, and trash. The girls were all students at Glenbrook North High School in the Chicago suburbs, and much of the incident was captured on tape.

Mike Riggle, the principal of Northbrook, was the principal of my high school in Bloomington, Indiana, for two of the years I was there. He commanded a lot of respect, and his successors have been unable to escape from his shadow. So I was intrigued and pleased to read the initial reports in Chicago's Red press--that "students will not be suspended because the incident did not happen during school hours or on school grounds."

A few days later, Riggle changed his mind, on the advice of the high school's lawyer. Once he learned that he was allowed to punish the girls, he did so to his maximum capabilities. Those involved now have 10-day suspensions, expulsion recommendations, and several may not be accepted to any college.

The hazing was a horrible thing, but Riggle's first instinct was right and he should not have recanted. My high school had a hazing incident while I was there--senior members of the soccer team tied the junior members to the school flagpole and tortured them with electric dog collars. The players were suspended, and I thought that was the right decision. But this is different. Although the students all attended the high school, they didn't do anything wrong at school. School punishments should be reserved for school infractions, not criminal assault.

What of the lawyer's argument that the school is entitled to punish students for committing crimes, even outside of school? Well, the school may have the power to do it, but it shouldn't. It should let the criminal justice system handle the incident, for two reasons.

First, suspension and expulsion are academic punishments, which are particularly harsh to bright, intelligent, and promising students. They hurt the students who were really benefiting from school, while leaving relatively unharmed the dross at the bottom of the class, who couldn't care less about missing two weeks of class, and may even be glad for the vacation.

Second, the school discipline system lacks many of the desirable features of the criminal law--codified rules of evidence, a neutral judiciary, constitutional defense rights, and the rule of lenity. We created our courts to dispense justice and our schools to dispense education, including a respect for that justice. The principal should not serve as judge and jury for a student's behavior outside of school just as judges should not give calculus lectures from the bench.

The girls at the hazing incident had varying levels of involvement. Some senior girls may have been ringleaders and instigators, others may have been caught up in the frenzy, and still others may have stood by entirely, or even tried (in vain) to arrest the melee. Riggle has yet to finalize the assignment of punishments, but figuring out which girl deserves what punishment is a non-trivial task to which the courts are suited. Schools, however, lack the institutional capacity.

Suspension and expulsion are sensible reactions to students whose presence at school has caused massive disruption or damage. But the girls at Glenbrook North haven't caused any trouble at school. Indeed, school might well be the safest place to keep them.

I am not disputing that Riggle has the authority to suspend and expel the girls who he believes have participated in the fracas. I am saying that he should not do so, whatever his authority permits. Suspension and expulsion should be used to keep out of school students who harm others there. They should not be used as a punishment instead of (or on top of) the penalties the law already imposes for independent assaults.