Just about every spring, it seems, Americans get news that our suburban schools aren’t the oases of safety and high standards we would like to think they are. This year was no different. In early May near Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Illinois, senior girls subjected juniors to a hazing before a ritual “Power Puff” football game that would have had Lord of the Flies author William Golding nodding his head.
During the hours-long, beer-logged event that involved about a 100 current and former students, seniors tied pig intestines around the necks of the juniors, smeared them with human feces, and beat and kicked them. Several seniors attacked one girl by putting a bucket over her head and hitting it with a baseball bat until she lost consciousness. In the video that helped cable news networks make the incident a national scandal, one can see the seniors viciously punching and kicking juniors, as the younger kids beg for help. One voice chants: “Kill her! Kill her!” By the end, five girls wound up in the hospital; one girl needed ten stitches to close a head wound. The scene was so bad that prosecutors eventually filed battery charges against 15 students.
Glenbrook North resembles thousands of suburban high schools throughout the country. It is a solidly middle-class school where a large majority of graduates go on to college; Newsweek recently placed it among the top 4 percent of high schools in the country. It’s a good guess that a lot of the girls involved in the hazing spent their evenings doing homework, their Saturdays playing soccer, and their Sundays going to church. Yet despite all their privilege, they had failed to learn a basic moral prohibition against cruelty, including beating someone pleading for help. As one senior girl said about one of the injured juniors: “It’s not that big a deal. So a girl got her head split open. She’s not dead.”
How a middle-class girl came to shrug off these brutal events is actually no mystery, for it appears that many Northbrook adults share her cavalier attitude toward criminal assault. In addition to two parents who face charges for supplying beer kegs for the event, several others have sued the school for suspending their daughters. “This may affect college,” one whined to the Chicago Tribune. Another mother fretted that, if suspended, her daughter would not be able to attend her prom. Probably the most enlightening statement came from village president Mark Damisch, who told Newsweek, “These kids were goofs. This is not a morality tale. . . . This is about a group of kids who made bad judgments.”
Damisch’s words reflect the bizarre moral system of at least some of the adult denizens of middle-class America. Beating a girl with a baseball bat is just a goofy prank, or at worst, an unfortunate personal decision. What really matters in life is going to Brown.