By Kyle Swenson
The teenage girls were blindfolded but they could hear the jeering crowd, smell the beer and weed smoke spiking the night air. When their eyes were uncovered, the initiates – freshman members of the Lakeridge High School dance team – saw their school, a well-groomed low-slung campus circled by picturesque hills in suburban Portland, Oregon. A group of 30 older students, boys and girls, stood before them like amped-up ballpark spectators.
The older team members shouted that the freshmen had to do their dance routines, according to court records. As the girls fumbled through the steps, the older teens started bombing them with water balloons, some filled with oatmeal. They were sprayed with large water guns filled with ketchup. The senior team members then told the girls to strip down to the bikinis they had been ordered to wear. They were given garbage bags to don like dresses. A tarp, sticky with maple syrup and feathers, was unrolled on the ground. The young girls were ordered to wrestle.
“Last one standing wins.”
The young girls began toppling each other while helplessly begging. “Please stop, please stop.”
The high school hazing mayhem did not go unnoticed on the night of Aug. 9, 2014. From nearby trees, Taissa Achcar-Winkels secretly filmed her 14-year-old daughter’s public humiliation.
“I was not okay with what had happened,” Achcar-Winkels’s daughter, identified in court records only by initials, told a federal court this week, according to the Lake Oswego Review. “I was terrified. I thought that had I stood up and said I didn’t want to do it, it wouldn’t have ended up well either way.”
The maple syrup wrestling was part of a series of hazing incidents at the center of a trial this week in Portland. Two years ago, Taissa and Ray Achcar-Winkels filed a negligence lawsuit against the Lake Oswego School District, administrators, coaches and others alleging the defendants failed to curb harassment aimed at their daughter and other new members of the high school’s dance team. The gantlet of abuse allegedly played out like “Mean Girls” on steroids – public dares, inappropriate sexual talk, abuse and bullying, according to court documents. But the family alleges the district is also responsible for the retaliation the girl endured after speaking up.
“I was bullied, I was retaliated [against],” the girl told the court this week. “After I spoke up, the principals, the administration did nothing. They just let the girls keep bullying me. I had a really hard time. No one checked to see if I was okay.”
In court this week, the school acknowledged the hazing, but pushed back against the idea the district bore responsibility for the abuse or retaliation.
“No one disputes that this happened,” the school district’s attorney, Karen Vickers told the court, Courthouse News reported. “We all wish those events had never happened. But they did and we are here. The Lake Oswego School District, like all districts in Oregon, has a policy against hazing and bullying. What this case is really about is the challenges faced by high school students, their parents and school officials.”
The student, according to court documents and testimony, was excited to be one of the few freshmen to make the school’s Pacer Dance Team (PDT) during the summer before school started.
The harassment, however, began in June 2014, when the squad went on an overnight “bonding” trip in Gearhart, Oregon, according to a magistrate judge’s findings for the court.
One night during the visit, the team was left alone for a campfire. There, the older members of the squad initiated a game they called “Ten Fingers.” According to the findings for the court, in the game “senior PDT dancers disclosed activities they had previously engaged in and other PDT dancers were to indicate if they had engaged in the same activity by raising a finger. Several senior PDT dancers volunteered that they had taken drugs or engaged in sexual activities, including anal and oral sex.”
The student was so embarrassed by the conversation she had to walk away from the campfire.
In early August, the team gathered at an older member’s house for an “initiation sleepover.” The girls’ phones were taken and they were forced into costumes – “things such as Big Bird, a hot dog, a Skittle, Thing 1 and Thing 2,” the magistrate’s findings state.
Then they were piled into a senior’s car and forced to play “Truth or Dare.” If they chose dare, the girls had to pick their task from a hat. These including running into a restaurant and screaming an obscenity and dancing on the roof of the car.
“They said you have to do it, there was no option. It was just, ‘You’re going to do it,'” the girl told the court this week.
The girls were then blindfolded and taken to the school, where a crowd was waiting with the water balloons and the maple syrup tarp.
Taissa Achcar-Winkels, nervous about what might happen to her daughter during the initiation, had walked to the school and witnessed the hazing. “I was already feeling extremely nervous,” she testified this week. “So I went for a walk. I was just going to go and see what was happening.”
After the wrestling, the initiation wasn’t over. The dancers were next driven to George Rogers Park on the banks of the Willamette River. The new team members were told to get into the water, then asked questions. Every wrong answer meant another step into the frigid river. The teens weren’t allowed to stop until the water was at their shoulders.
The freshman girl voiced her concerns about the hazing to a coach she trusted. The complaints made it to district administrators. They contacted the family, but her father told a school representative the family didn’t want to initiate an official investigation “due to the fear of possible reprisals,” court records say.
Her complaint, however, eventually spread to the rest of the squad and coaches. The other dancers began ignoring her and bullying her on social media, court documents allege. She was also taken off certain dance teams and not allowed to dance at big games – retaliation, the family alleges, for speaking up about the hazing. She quit the team. The school did open an investigation in November.
On Thursday, the school’s principal Jennifer Schiele defended the school’s response to the incidents. “I apologized to her,” she testified, according to the Lake Oswego Review. “I felt terrible about the way she came forward and did not receive support from her peers. I told her if she needed anything, she could come to me. I felt terrible for her.”