Criminalize hazing in Pennsylvania’s middle and high schools

Criminalize hazing in Pennsylvania’s middle and high schools

William C. Kashatus
The Times Leader
Thursday, March 17, 2016

The hazing ritual, once associated mostly with college fraternities and sororities, is becoming more frequent in high school athletics . . . and more dangerous.

There is nothing new about hazing.  It’s been done for generations by college athletic teams and Greek societies to provide both those doing the hazing and the initiate with a sense of bonding through harmless pranks.

But over the last decade high school athletes have distorted the concept of “team bonding” by making hazing more violent and sexual in nature.  Too often the ritual becomes a felony, much like the behavior of a street gang where the initiate is violently beaten in order to gain membership.

Over the last few years several high profile cases of ritual hazing by high school athletes have occurred in New York City, Los Angeles, suburban Chicago, Sayreville, NJ, Long Island, NY, and Chattanooga, Tenn.  But the most recent case to capture national headlines took place in suburban Philadelphia last October and has forced state legislators to toughen Pennsylvania’s anti-hazing law.

The alleged incident involved three senior members of the Conestoga High School football team, including a captain, and a freshman who was trying to leave the locker room during a hazing ritual. Two of the seniors allegedly held him down while the other sodomized him with a broom handle.

The school’s football coaches maintained that they knew nothing about it.  But students insisted that sexually-oriented hazing rituals often took place in the locker room on “No-Gay Thursdays” during the last three years, according to Thomas P. Hogan, the Chester County district attorney, who headed the investigation.

Recently, Chester County police charged the senior footballers with assault, unlawful restraint, making terroristic threats and other related offenses. Because the offending football players were age 17 at the time of the offense, they were charged as juveniles, according to Hogan.  They were not charged with sexual assault.

Nor were the alleged offenders charged with hazing since Pennsylvania’s current anti-hazing law, which makes the offense a third degree misdemeanor, only covers colleges and universities.

But a bill passed in the house last November aims to expand the anti-hazing law to cover grades seven through 12. The bill will likely be put to a vote in the Senate within a few weeks and has a good chance of passing.

Until now, schools appeared to have been at a loss for how to address hazing.  Student-athletes believe they can get away with what they consider to be a “rite of passage.”  In some instances, the coaches are not only aware of the hazing, but condone it as an essential part of the team-building process because they experienced it themselves as athletes.

More often schools are in the dark about hazing, either because it happens off campus and is therefore difficult to monitor, or because administrators, teachers and coaches are more focused on other issues at the forefront such as drugs and weapons.

In fact, there are several steps that schools can take to prevent hazing.  First administrators must clearly define the term, establish a policy to deal with it and outline the consequences.  Punishments should include forfeiture of the season, elimination from state competition, expulsion from the team, and/or long-term suspension from school depending on the severity of the hazing.

Second, teachers, coaches and other supervisory personnel must be made aware of the possibility of hazing and placed in a position to monitor students who might haze others, especially in locker rooms, on buses or in other areas where the ritual is most likely to occur.

Third, there should be coach-led discussions on every team about what constitutes hazing, and these must be on-going among all the school’s teams.

Finally, parents need to talk with their children about hazing, emphasizing that any time the child feels uncomfortable with a situation they should immediately leave and report it to an adult.

Together with a strong anti-hazing law, these measures will allow Pennsylvania to drastically reduce, if not eliminate altogether, these shameful acts.