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.
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?”