The most effective means of preventing hazing is to encourage students to break the silence.

On Monday, the parents of a Florida college student filed a lawsuit providing additional details into a deadly ritual that took place on a chartered band bus. Meanwhile, a hazing incident in Portland is being investigated as a sex crime.

These high-profile cases ought to serve as a warning to parents, educators and coaches throughout the region about a topic that isn't always treated with the seriousness it deserves.

The term 'hazing' connotes a pattern of behavior that is harmful, but that some people may view as simply a painful part of growing up, or even as a 'boys-will-be-boys' (and it's almost always boys) rite of passage. Yet, as the Florida and Grant High incidents could well demonstrate, hazing is not only hurtful to its victims - it is dangerous and often criminal. Indeed, in the past 12 years, incidents in three rural communities (Ontario, North Bend and Molalla) led to criminal charges.

Several school administrators in the region contacted by the Portland Tribune said hazing isn't a widespread problem in their districts. An informal survey by the News-Times generated similar responses.

But that's not a call for complacency.

National research shows that hazing occurs in all types of school districts and it cuts across all social and economic groups. Most districts have policies prohibiting hazing and bullying behaviors. Hazing, however, is difficult for adults to detect.

One reason is the culture of secrecy that teenagers are so skillful at creating. A national survey found that 92 percent of high school students said they will not report a hazing. Even victims rarely will step forward.

Another is that students may not be the best judge of what behavior crosses the line from a playful prank to damaging, ritualistic bullying. The national survey noted that 48 percent of the students acknowledge participating in activities which are defined as hazing, yet only 14 percent admit to being 'hazed' - underscoring the disconnect between how adults and students define the word.

But there are opportunities for adults to help prevent these painful experiences for young people. Although hazing is hardly limited to athletic squads, 79 percent of NCAA athletes report being hazed in high school. So, coaches in particular should have a clear policy that any conduct resembling hazing will result in disqualification from sports, at the very least.

Schools also should have systems for reporting and tracking incidents of hazing so that they know whether their policies are having an effect.

Perhaps the most effective means of prevention, however, is to encourage students to break the silence and come forward - anonymously - when they hear even a rumor of hazing. As one expert noted, the person who reported the incident at Grant High School should be a considered a hero, because he or she realized it was more courageous to reveal what happened than it was to stay quiet.

Parents and educators likewise can help disrupt a cruelly destructive pattern of adolescent behavior by discussing the issue openly with students and being clear about the consequences. Along the way, they can help young people avoid the humiliation and physical and emotional scars that hazing can produce.

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