SEATTLE — A 20-year-old University of Victoria student from Seattle has filed a lawsuit against Seattle Public Schools over a hazing incident at Garfield High School and the alleged intimidation that followed from top school administrators.
Alex, who asked not to have his last name used, entered Garfield in 2017. He was an accomplished student-athlete who joined the school’s swim team in ninth grade.
Soon into the season, according to the claim filed against the district last month, Alex witnessed sexual hazing in the locker room. Alex said he saw upperclassmen having a least one freshman do sit-ups into the bare private parts of a team captain.
“This shouldn’t be going on anywhere,” Alex said. “No one should have to witness that, experience that.”
Afterward, Alex said he was told to keep quiet about what he saw.
“There was a code of silence with the team,” Alex said. “They said that anything that happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. I took that literally. I took that to heart.”
Alex, who has autism, said he was “traumatized” from the sexual hazing and the threat to not share what happened with anyone.
“I kept things bottled up, hidden away,” Alex said. “I disconnected from everything and isolated myself.”
Alex said his grades, self-worth and mental health fell apart after school administrators attempted to silence him about the event.
“Emotional self-harm, that pretty much describes what I was doing to myself; keeping all those emotions bottled up inside me,” Alex said.
In 2020, as a junior, the Garfield school newspaper was working on a story about the swim team’s culture of hazing and Alex was to be interviewed about his experience. According to a district investigation and the legal claim, the vice principal stopped Alex in the hall as he was heading to the interview and pressured him to not speak with the newspaper reporter.
In the district investigation, the vice principal said he told Alex, “It would not be a good idea…to talk to the newspaper because he was just starting the investigation into the (alleged) sexual assault.”
But the lawsuit claims the school administrator was “threatening” and “caused harm to the student” by “exacerbating his underlying trauma from…witnessing the hazing event.”
“They want to cover everything up,” Alex said. “They don’t want that stuff to tarnish the school’s reputation. It was sort of like the captain telling me not to talk about anything that happened in the locker room. It’s just (the school) doing it again and forcing a rigid code of silence.”
Alex said his mental state got so bad he ended up having a breakdown at a school function.
“I was literally a shadow of myself,” Alex said. “It pushed me to the edge of suicide.”
A spokesperson for Seattle Public Schools said the district won’t comment on pending litigation but that they’re committed to providing a safe environment for their students.
“The district (has) a strong policy in place prohibiting the harassment, intimidation and bullying of any student, and has processes in place to ensure that any allegations of such conduct are promptly investigated and addressed,” said Beverly Redmond, assistant superintendent for public affairs.
Research shows high school hazing is common
While hazing is typically associated with college clubs, such as fraternities and athletic teams, researchers have found many students experience hazing in high school. One of the most thorough research projects ever conducted on hazing from the University of Maine found that 47% of college students reported being hazed in high school.
“It’s important, when you’re thinking of prevention, to realize that students are coming into college very often having experienced hazing,” said Dr. Elizabeth Allan, the principal investigator for the University of Maine study and the director of the nonprofit StopHazing. “And they may be expecting this kind of behavior in order to be accepted in a club, team or organization.”
Allan said it’s not uncommon for even a witness of hazing to suffer adverse outcomes from the experience.
“Oftentimes the emotional harm, that hidden harm of hazing, that kind of trauma can stay with individuals for many years,” Allan said. “So, there’s a lot of secondary harm that comes from hazing.”
A law to combat hazing
Last month, a new law went into effect to increase anti-hazing efforts in the state. Sam’s Law is named after Sam Martinez of Bellevue who died in 2019 after an annual hazing ritual at a Washington State University fraternity. The law mandates that all colleges in the state must provide hazing training to incoming freshmen. Schools must also now document and publicize incidents of hazing on the school website to allow parents and potential students to be fully informed about where hazing is occurring.
State Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, sponsored Sam’s Law, and in the upcoming legislative session will propose another bill that would increase a hazing charge from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. In cases of severe bodily harm or death, the bill, if passed, would make hazing a felony charge.
Leavitt said she foresees expanding hazing initiatives to help protect younger students.
“I would love to move into the K through 12 space on hazing,” Leavitt said. “It happens with more prevalence than I think we want to admit. People don’t just start hazing in college. Oftentimes students are hazed in high school.”
This is the first time Alex has spoken publicly about the hazing that he witnessed and how it affected his life. He said he wanted to speak out to hopefully protect other young students from hazing.
“This is something I’ve had years to stew over, my own emotional trauma,” Alex said. “It’s best to go share that stuff to make sure that no one else has to go through this again. No one else should share my pain.”