The middle-school miscreants found many ways to express themselves. One day they smashed the science laboratory equipment, which was reduced to a heap of twisted metal and broken glass. On another day they would interrupt classes with smutty jokes. They treated female teachers and students with contempt. Repeatedly, the boys of the class of '89 found, there was little or no reprimand—not from teachers or from parents. But word was out. Because of the reputation of the middle school jocks, some 20 families, representing roughly 17% of the students, removed their children from the school system before high school. When principal David Maltman proposed special classes and counseling for troublemakers, their "parents responded with anger. 'You're after my kid'—that kind of thing. Parents don't want the stigma."
Yet the young jocks were popular with many students, who admired the way they challenged authority. They were, says a basketball player who was one year behind them, "the popular people. Definitely." They were popular for a reason that's very important to 10-or 11-year-olds: While most kids didn't know where they fit in, the jocks created their own fraternal society with secret codes and inside jokes. Either you were with them or you were out of it. Even in sixth grade they seemed stronger and brawnier than the other middle school kids. "You were around them, it made you feel safe," the basketball player remembered. "A lot of them wrestled, and everybody knew you had to be strong to wrestle. Not too many people challenged them if they did something wrong."
By middle school most of the members of the sports clique and its admirers lived in a hermetic all-male world of teams and friends and brothers and fathers. There was the usual sparse offering of extracurricular activities that brought boys and girls together to work toward common goals, but these were shunned as "nerdish" by the jocks. They didn't know girls as equals, as friends, as people you cared about.
The school didn't identify the jocks' voluntary segregation as a problem with potentially serious consequences, and it wasn't unusual in this respect. In the mid-'80s schools across the country just didn't think the everyday treatment of girls by boys was a serious issue that merited discussion among faculty and students. In Glen Ridge the school did not detect, or chose not to notice, that these young jocks had a callous, abusive manner with girls, that the divide between them had widened.
In Glen Ridge, as in most public schools, possible sexual misconduct by a student was treated gingerly. In most public schools in the United States, a certain amount of sexual acting out was tolerated unless a student came forward with a concrete accusation of harassment. In 1993 a national survey by the American Association of University Women found that 81% of female public school students said they had been sexually harassed in school—in hallways, playgrounds and classrooms. Perhaps the most striking finding was that only 7% of those who were harassed told a teacher about it.
Maltman, the middle school principal, saw serious problems ahead for the jocks in high school. But he never thought they would become as serious as they did. "If you asked me in 1985 whether these kids would get in trouble, I'd say, Yeah, they'd be out drinking and get themselves in a car wreck. Could I predict the kind of thing that was going to happen? No. I wouldn't have thought that kids I knew for years would get into something like that."
Twenty feet into Glen Ridge High, in the hall right across from the principal's office, were the glass cases displaying shelf after shelf of sports trophies, a glittering tribute to Glen Ridge's athletic triumphs. The cases could not contain the entire display, and the overflow adorned the shelves of the school's main office and the library, a cornucopia of bats and gloves and baseballs and footballs and plaques and statuettes. Nowhere visible was last year's student honor roll.
Some of the hundred or so groggy freshmen from the class of '89 may have imagined the faint scent of locker room liniment as they entered the high school for the first time on Thursday, Sept., 5, 1985, and it wasn't only because of the clunky concrete-block walls or because the main corridor dead-ended into a row of boys' lockers. A strong muscular attitude permeated the building.
The center of command in the school was embodied in the principal and the vice principal, who were standing in the vestibule, waiting to greet the newcomers. Both had strong ties to the world of Glen Ridge sports. The principal had been an assistant to the school's successful football coach, Bill Horey, and the vice principal, who was responsible for disciplining the students, was a former basketball coach. Horey, now the athletic director, was the third most influential administrator.
These were the caretakers of all the students in the school, boys and girls. Those young women seeking assertive role models—a responsible and comprehending school elder to whom they might whisper an intimate confidence about how young women were treated by certain male classmates—would not find that confidant in the old-boy administration of the school.