Tempe’s Sister City program has twice been named the best of its size nationwide, but the celebrated organization is now trying to repair a darker side: Hazing of future exchange students.
The program’s leaders acknowledge older teen members have grown too wild when they induct high school juniors. A complaint stemming from the most recent induction prompted program coordinators to promise they’ll end hazing.
The anonymous complaint reported older students paraded younger ones down Mill Avenue with underwear on their heads, among other things.
“The hazing has got to go,” said Dick Neuheisel, the program’s president and one of its founders.
Tempe Sister City is run by some of the community’s most influential leaders, including former City Council members. Its vice president is Harry Mitchell, a former mayor who recently stepped down as a Democratic state senator to challenge Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., for his seat in Congress.
Program officials said they started to investigate hazing after getting an anonymous letter about the annual induction ceremony on March 24.
Officials bristled at the letter, which was obtained by the Tribune, and suggested someone rejected by the program might be seeking to embarrass its leaders with false allegations.
Yet three officials acknowledged — to varying degrees — some inappropriate acts took place and should be stopped.
The hazing came on a Friday night, after a ceremony where adults who run the program welcomed 28 Tempe students who are 16 to 17 years old. The teens learned which sister city they’ll go to this summer and met with students who went the previous summer.
Afterward, the older students took the younger ones out for a night of fun.
During the ceremony, inductees wore bras over their clothing. But according to the letter, older students took younger ones on Mill Avenue with underwear and bras on their heads. They later went to Kiwanis Park and were covered in food.
The underwear is “part of the tradition,” said Bill Peterson, chairman of the selection committee for seven years. The teens also dressed in shirts with crazy things printed on them and sang funny songs to build camaraderie, he said.
Four adults supervised the teens during the traditional night on Mill and at the park, Peterson said. He instructed adults to ensure older teens don’t force younger ones to perform embarrassing acts. They’re supposed to tell students they don’t have to do anything they object to, Peterson said.
He acknowledged some teens might not voice concerns because of peer pressure.
“I realize different people have different sensitivities toward things like this,” he said. “And if this is going to prove to be a problem, I think we have to take a look at changing the activities.”
Peterson has spoken with several students but hasn’t found any objections yet to what happened. He plans to contact more students to see if any were offended.
Neuheisel said he went through hazing during his fraternity days and objects to it. He said he’s had other anonymous complaints over the years but dismissed them as the work of somebody who was turned down for the program.
“I’m embarrassed and I apologize to anybody who is involved with our organization or the general public,” he said.
Mitchell attended the ceremony but not the unofficial event where the hazing occurred.
Students wore bras on top of their clothes during the ceremony, which could be considered inappropriate — if anybody objected, he said.
One of the program’s founders and chairman of the selection committee in the 1970s, Mitchell said induction pranks developed later, though he’s not sure when or what they are.
“When I was the head of the student selection there wasn’t any of that stuff going on,” Mitchell said.
He added the hazing is “not acceptable and I will do whatever I can, use whatever influence I can, to ensure if it did happen, it won’t happen again.”
Tempe Sister City program
Since 1972, the nonprofit organization has sent high school students to a growing number of cities for cultural exchanges that last part of a summer. Teens from those nations also stay with host parents in Tempe. The organization has won several awards, and was twice named best program in cities between 100,000 and 300,000. It’s run by a board of directors that includes about 40 members. Its sister cities are:
• Skopje, Macedonia
• Regensburg, Germany
• Hutt City, New Zealand
• Zhenjiang, China
• Timbuktu, Mali
• Beaulieu sur Mer, France
• Carlow, Ireland