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Illicit CP - March 2004
Press-Democrat, Santa Rosa, California, 19 March 2004
Unraveling a secret tradition
By Chris Coursey
It was a violent coming-of-age ceremony, a secret ritual passed from one generation to the next with brutal efficiency.
The younger boys anticipated it with a mix of pride and dread. The older boys planned it with a mix of privilege and duty.
Its physical and emotional impacts were brushed aside. But they endured long enough for the victims to mature into a new generation of perpetrators. Hazing is the word for the initiation rites that welcome newcomers into the folds of sports teams, clubs, fraternities, sororities or -- in the case of the city of Cloverdale -- high school.
But the seven boys who were arrested in that city last summer weren't charged with hazing. The court papers included words such as assault, conspiracy and kidnapping.
They had rounded up some of the town's graduating eighth-graders -- some willing, many not -- and driven them to a remote party spot near Lake Sonoma. Then -- as a previous generation of high school seniors had done to most of them four years before -- the older boys beat the younger ones' buttocks with wooden paddles designed specifically to inflict pain. Some were hit once. Some were hit many times.
"We stopped when we could tell they couldn't take any more," said one of the seniors.
He and another of the seven perpetrators agreed to talk this week on the condition that their names wouldn't appear in the newspaper. Talking about their experience, and its aftermath, is part of the "plan" they have undertaken in place of the "sentence" they otherwise would have received for their crimes. Known as "restorative justice," it seeks to connect young offenders to their victims and their communities in order to develop the kind of empathy that will make them think twice before offending again.
He had known it was coming since he was in fourth grade.
Three days before the end of his eighth-grade year, as he and a friend walked down a Cloverdale street, two older boys pulled up in a pickup.
"They asked if we'd been paddled yet. We said, 'No,' and we got in the truck."
They were taken to a house, told to keep quiet, ordered to bend over and struck with the paddle.
"It hurt. A lot. But the second one wasn't so bad 'cause I was kinda numb."
But it didn't hurt for long, and when it was over "we felt like we were part of something."
The boy, now 17 and getting ready to graduate, blinks a couple of times.
"It was the wrongest thing, but I thought it was the rightest thing."
He and his cohorts still felt that way last June, when the police hauled them to Juvenile Hall.
"I thought it was unfair," said the second senior, now 18. "Other people did it. Everyone knew about it -- cops, teachers, parents."
But through meetings with their victims, talks with school officials and presentations to the community, the boys' feelings changed.
"Talking about how scared those kids were, how much it hurt, it finally set in for me that I was the bad guy," said the 17-year-old.
Only seven seniors were arrested, out of a class of more than 70. Only one year of hazing was exposed, out of perhaps decades of Cloverdale tradition. Restorative justice seeks not just to change the minds of the perpetrators, but to change the culture of the community.
"It's been an effort to unravel something abnormal that has become normalized," said Jessalyn Nash of Restorative Resources, which contracts with the juvenile court to oversee the program.
Only time will tell whether it has worked. But this week, six of those seven seniors stood in front of Cloverdale's assembled eighth-graders and told them, "You don't have to be paddled anymore."
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