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Sweden struggles to come to grips with high school hazing

Joel Linde · 19 Sep 2011, 14:11

Published: 19 Sep 2011 14:11 GMT+02:00

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First year high school students at Gångsätra high school on Lidingö near Stockholm were recently made to participate in a "beauty pageant" in which older students stood by, pen and paper in hand, to grade each new high schooler's appearance.

“It's terrible. I’m pissed. This is a group of older students performing this rubbish,” principal Christer Ullner tells The Local.

“Somewhere the devil must have possessed them, I don’t know where.”

The incident at Gångsätra comes just days after a hazing session at Polhem high school in Gothenburg spiraled out of control, prompting calls from angry parents and a crisis meeting among school officials.

During the incident, students were forced to lie on the ground in the pouring rain and had various liquids poured over them. The entire time, the first year students were told to say they were ugly before being forced to enter the school, soaked from head to toe.

The two incidents have once again put the practice of hazing into the headlines in Sweden, prompting renewed debate about what to do about the practice.

While the recent incidents didn't result in any physical harm, hazing incidents in years past have had much more serious consequences.

Last year, two boys were beaten with clubs at a hazing party in Borås in western Sweden. And in 2007, a 16-year-old Stockholm girl was taken to hospital with alcohol poisoning.

And in 2006, a 15-year-old boy was found naked and unconscious with Nazi symbols covering his body in a wooded area near Stockholm following a hazing incident.

On one Swedish web forum discussing high school hazing, students tell of having eggs broken on their heads for not crawling on all fours.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever done, so damn humiliating,” writes one student on ungdomer.se.

Jonathan, 20, described the also “clothes line”, where two teams compete to create the longest line using only the clothes off their bodies.

“It might not be super fun if you’re not that comfortable with taking your clothes off in front of your new classmates. But if you don’t, your team will lose,” Jonathan explains on the forum.

Susanne Olsson, principal at Polhem high school, downplays the seriousness of the incident at her school, where hazing is allowed by school officials.

As a condition, however, students report back to the school what their plans are.

Nevertheless, sometimes things get out of hand, she admits.

“I think that to a certain degree they look to the traditional way of hazing, where it was more about power and and breaking down the new students,” she says.

“It’s not the first time something happened, but I’ve never received calls about this before.”

Olsson explained that Polhem inherited its hazing tradition from a nearby university.

“Hazing has been a tradition here for many years,” she says.

“Since we are a technical high school, we adopted it from the Chalmers Institute for Technology.”

But hazing is meant to have a completely different purpose than simply making unsuspecting teens feel worthless, says Anders Cardfelt, a member of the hazing committee at Chalmers' department of chemical technology.

“It’s about welcoming new students, both to the school and to the corps, and helping them to a life where they can study and also have a social life outside of school,” Cardfelt explains.

The common Swedish term for hazing, nollning, originated as a way to describe the right of passage that new students, zeros (nollor), must go through before they can be socially accepted as having entered their first year of high school studies, at which point they become “ones” (ettor).

Each autumn, cities are sprawling with new “zeros” in bright jumpsuits or other startling attire, who are making their way into a new community by performing tasks of sometimes embarrassing nature.

“It includes barbecues, excursions, study evenings, sittings (a classy form of dinner with starter, main course and dessert)...a bunch of fun activities,” Cardfelt says.

“I was hazed myself last year and now I’m responsible for hazing others. It’s been great both times, it’s very rewarding and you connect with people. It’s structured in a way so that people can try many different activities, and nothing is obligatory.”

But a tradition meant to facilitate bonding among university students has since migrated down to high schools and being practiced among students who are often less mature and more vulnerable than their university counterparts.

And while Sweden lacks any overarching guidelines for regulating hazing, that doesn't mean that administrators are free to turn a blind eye to reports of student suffering.

“No one can absolve themselves of responsibility and say they didn’t know about it,” Elin Brunell, a lawyer at the Swedish National Agency for Education (Skolverket), explains.

Story continues below…

While refusing to comment on any specific case, Brunell says that all school employees are obliged to report and take action if they hear about any form of violation associated with hazing.

“If there are situations that students might see as violating the school has to act. Either they ban the activity, or they have enough control to know that no violations occur,” she explains.

At many high schools across Sweden hazing has been banned altogether, like at a school in Linköping in central Sweden where last year students were threatened via blogs and encouraged to engage in sex games.

While officials at Polhem high school are discussing the future of the controversial tradition, Gångsätra principal Ullner, where hazing is already banned, frets about what can be done to stop such incidents from occurring year after year.

“We have too little insight," he says.

“Much of this we don’t even hear about since it happens outside of school grounds.”

Reflecting on the incident with the 15-year-old boy who was found unconscious and naked, Ullner admits the Gångsätra “beauty pageant” isn't nearly as serious, which makes the question of what measures to take less clear cut.

“If those offenders would have been found, who did that to that boy, it would have been easy to expel them,” he says.

“But can we really expel students for holding up paper sheets with numbers?”

Joel Linde (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

15:24 September 19, 2011 by Coolbreeze
Any comments by the usual suspects should make interesting reading.

So, tell me, how are you going to blame foreigners for what has happened here?
16:26 September 19, 2011 by 15U
My friend, a teacher in Swedish school, told me several times about huge hazing problem in schools. The roots of the problem is total freedom given for pupils, they can do everything, a teacher has no any athority or right to manage them.
18:05 September 19, 2011 by summo
what's the drama, it's a one off, Britsh teens do this 2 or 3 days week and don't grown out of it until they are in their 30s, with teen pregnancies and stds along the way!!!
19:35 September 19, 2011 by Opinionfool
While there is some behaviour like this is in British schools we call it by its proper name: bullying. Public (that is private) schools have centuries of tradition with older pupils forcing younger ones to participate. However, the real impetus behind the increase is surely the influx of US films and TV programs dramatising (and implicitly legitimising) initiation into fraternities and sororities with such games.
00:05 September 20, 2011 by dizzymoe33
Just another way to bully people because parents are afraid to teach their children to respect other people. So stupid is this hazing ritual. It needs to be put to a stop before more damage is caused. And not only does it cause harm to one's self but it also causes damages to ones self-worth, self-esteem and the ability to act properly in a normal social setting.
00:37 September 20, 2011 by Crispy Crunch
Hazing? I've never heard the word before. Is this an American English term?

It' s not used in the UK and will be meaningless to a large number of your readers.

It's called either bullying or humiliating initiation ceremonies.
03:25 September 20, 2011 by DavidtheNorseman
@Crispy - while I've heard the term mostly in an American context, the Guardian uses it.. eg: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2005/nov/28/military.immigrationpolicy

It's always been an abusive silliness and the answer is for the bullies to realize there will be dire consequences (fragging in the military but that's a wee bit too serious perhaps for high school children...we simply carried weapons in the day with the understanding they'd be used if anyone attempted anything and all was peaceful :-) )
09:25 September 20, 2011 by Pont-y-garreg
I thought it was an American term too. Can't say I've ever heard it used here in the UK.
10:31 September 20, 2011 by zooeden
"Somewhere the devil must have possessed them" well, if that´s what it is then there is nothing more to do then...
11:37 September 20, 2011 by DavidtheNorseman
As I recall one solution at the University level was to make participation voluntary. Got rid of the thrill the bullying types had of forcing their attentions on the vulnerable and turned things into more of a party...
15:08 September 23, 2011 by tetrahedron
Much of this sounds to me like harmless fun although I think that the more serious cases should be investigated..

However, when I was a teenager, I would love to have been naked in front of all the other kids in the class, also naked. That could also help people overcome fears in later life.
19:47 September 23, 2011 by SuperTulle
I'd just like to note that this article describes the worst incidents, and that they are of course, a minority among the initiation ceremonies.

Most gymnasiums (high schools) have no real initiation, just the principal and leader of the student council greeting them and wishing them a happy stay.

Most universities have more elaborate initiations, but most of the time they just involve cooperation exercises and funny costumes. For example, a class from my local university dressed up as the poster boy from a popular caviar brand, and did a centipede race.
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