September 23, 2009

The Hazing in Millburn: The Media Feeding Frenzy

It's been months since I posted anything on my poor neglected blog. Paid work intervened.

What's inspired me to return is being in the middle of a media maelstrom in Millburn, the little town where I live and which, it was recently disclosed, is the home to a perverse, 15-year tradition of hazing.

At first, I didn't believe it when a friend told me she heard from another friend that a group of seniors at our high school--named the "best" high school in New Jersey last year--hazed freshmen girls by distributing "slut" lists, pushing them in lockers, and blowing whistles int heir faces on the first day of school. But pretty quickly, as we began to discuss hazing in an online discussion group of working moms, it became clear that the rumors were all true.

The emails began flying, and the Millburn superintendent and principal finally acknowledged the ugly episode publicly. And I attended my first Board of Ed meeting in probably eight years this week.

At the meeting, I urged the Board and the school district to create a task force to study how other schools have managed to eradicate this pernicious practice and come up with "best practices" policy. I left the meeting somewhat encouraged --the principal, superintendent and school board members all recognized the seriousness of the matter and seemed as determined as the parents to put an end to this tradition once and for all.

I hoped the serious work of researching and creating a new policy and approach would be the focus.

But, with the mixture of schadenfreude--bringing down the "number one" school district--and a little sex, the media--"citizen journalists," local TV reporters, bloggers and newspaper reporters-- descended and are threatening to turn this into a really ugly circus.

Today I got calls from two lurid, tabloid shows looking to do "investigative" reports on hazing in Millburn. I told one producer that I wasn't interested and wouldn't give her anyone's contact information. An hour later, I got a call from another show and told her the same thing.

As a journalist, I have a pretty good idea what these TV shows would look like--cheesy re-enactments and stock photos of teen girls scantily clad, all the while a voice intones about the decadent, indecent goings on in Millburn High.

So I wrote a note to my fellow Millburn-Short Hills working moms and posted it on the list serve. Here is an excerpt:

Please, those of you who know local reporters/citizen journalists and local public officials, tell them not to take the bait. It's not going to help their careers--they will give away their sources and lend their reputations to this cheesy show and get nothing in return--except helping a exploitative, sensational report that will degrade our daughters and demean the community.
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