SEATTLE — As an eager, if nervous, ninth-grader, Anya Meleshuk allowed several older girls to blindfold her one afternoon, put her in a car and drive her to a park where she was told to “propose” to a stranger. Later, dressed in fairy wings, she downed a dozen flavors of ice cream while her friends watched, and went home afterward feeling as if she had been accepted, initiated into Garfield High School, where such “froshing” has a storied history.
Many alumni cherish similar memories and were outraged last fall when Principal Ted Howard, long an opponent of this tradition, showed up unannounced at a Homecoming Weekend event to quell what would become Garfield’s moment of hazing infamy.
In a local park, the principal found at least a hundred students, many of them blind drunk. Freshmen, wearing diapers and black body paint, were being paddled by upperclassmen, and when Howard, who is African-American, began sending them home, one of the ringleaders threw eggs, cursing him with a racial epithet.
Afterward, seven students were suspended for arranging a drinking game beforehand, school counselors refused to write them letters of recommendation for college, and Garfield — an academic powerhouse accustomed to the media spotlight — found itself the object of unwelcome attention.
This year, Howard is hoping for a very different Homecoming. With $11,000 contributed by parents, the school sent five teachers to California for training in a freshman-orientation program called Link Crew, which is used around the country.
The target of Link Crew is not just hazing, but full-scale culture change.
By saturating a school with upperclassmen trained to connect with freshmen throughout the year, Link Crew can obliterate the fear of ostracism that leads many ninth-graders to submit to hazing in the first place, say those who have used the program.
“When kids go along with this stuff, what they’re saying is ‘I want to count. I want someone to pay attention to me. I want to be a part of the big picture,’ˆ” said Kevin Ozar, an English teacher at North Farmington High outside of Detroit, who credits Link Crew with stemming ninth-grade absenteeism and discipline problems at his school by more than 30 percent.
“There are myriad ways we can include people that don’t involve dangerous levels of alcohol or physical violence or being the butt of a joke,” Ozar said. “But we have to teach the skills we want students to exercise, and I don’t know that traditional schooling really teaches leadership.”
On a recent Monday, 92 juniors and seniors from Garfield gathered during the final days of summer vacation for coaching on how to draw out intimidated kids, encourage the shy, educate the overwhelmed. The following Wednesday, they would put those skills to the test as 477 newcomers flood the building for freshman orientation.
Though teachers at Garfield insist that hazing was not the primary reason for importing Link Crew — indeed, students had requested a mentoring program for more than a year — last fall’s scrum in the Arboretum galvanized parents to step up with funding.
“It was one of these moments when it became clear that it’s not enough just to complain about it,” said Eric Liu, a parent leader.
Liu isn’t expecting an instant turnaround but hopes Link Crew will make Garfield, which has about 1,600 students, more “human scale.”
A half-dozen miles north at Roosevelt High, the program has contributed to a more positive school culture, said Principal Brian Vance. One key is training the right mix of upperclassmen — not only the smartest kids, or the most athletic or the perennially popular.
For Link Crew to work, its leaders must mirror the entire student population, Vance said.
Though the program markets itself as leadership training, it was conceived in response to a hazing incident 24 years ago at a Silicon Valley high school, where upperclassmen forced freshmen to enter the first dance of the year on their hands and knees, crawl into a corral and get “branded” with an F — for freshman — inked on their faces.
“All in good fun, right?” said Carolyn Hill, a co-founder of Link Crew. “What they were doing wasn’t dangerous, so much as humiliating. Upperclassmen felt it was a welcoming thing, but it created a level of fear and anxiety that got in the way of student success.”
Data suggest that ninth-graders are at the highest risk for failure in high school, and Ozar, in Michigan, said academic difficulty among ninth-graders there prompted his initial interest in Link Crew. After eight years of using the program, the freshman failure rate has dropped 19 percent.
During Hill’s 22 years with Link Crew, trainers have worked with more than 14 million ninth-graders in 1,986 schools, and she has come to believe that a few key interventions can make a huge difference: creating safety, with upperclassmen looking out for younger students; providing information on what’s essential to know from a student’s perspective; and forging connection.
“If we give them all these things, hazing goes away because it doesn’t fit anymore,” she said.
There were no material incentives attracting Garfield’s upperclassmen to the program, and at first, faculty worried about generating enough interest. But 120 students applied to be Link Leaders, among them Meleshuk, now a junior.
She recalls her brush with froshing as a happy, “consensual” thing, but signed up for Link Crew because, overall, life as a ninth-grader at Garfield was daunting.
“I didn’t even tell anyone I was a freshman for months,” she said. “And when I did, it seemed like their attitude toward me kind of changed.”
JT Williams, who graduated in 2002, described hazing as popular primarily with white students, though he was ceremonially dragged through the mud as a ninth-grade football player.
“It was a frat-mentality kind of thing. Black students didn’t really participate in that culture,” said Williams, who is African-American. “It was usually kids who’d had it done to them and now were doing it to their younger siblings as sort of a ˜welcome to Garfield.’ Those who took part didn’t like it, but it was a rite of passage, something kids wanted to do because it had been done to them.”