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Another rising menace in schools: hazing

The 'indoctrination' of students into a group can cause harm, but is

"Rival" groups and violence-prone loners aren't the only threats to today's American high schoolers. Hazing, the ritual of humiliation or harm once popular primarily in college fraternities, is becoming prevalent among younger teenagers.

From Connecticut to Texas, high schools are coping with a growing number of hazing incidents that range from emotional intimidation to bodily harm.

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"The number of hazing incidents in high schools is way up," says Hank Nuwer, author of several books on hazing. The increase began in the 1980s, and anecdotal evidence since then indicates the problem is escalating.

Hazing often originates with sports teams, when members gang up on a teammate in a rite of initiation or to establish a pecking order, say those who track such incidents. Sometimes, it involves attacks by upperclassmen on younger kids.

School officials, meanwhile, are grappling with how to respond. Their efforts are complicated by the fact that, in many states, laws written to stamp out the practice at colleges do not apply to high schools.

Haphazard but dangerous

Even so, hazing by high schoolers, which takes place both on and off campus, is every bit as serious as that which occurs among college students - if not more so. It tends not to be as ritualized as it is on the college level, says Mr. Nuwer, and "because it's haphazard, it can be dangerous."

Often, hazing includes sexual assaults, alcohol overdoses, isolation, and degradation. Some common tactics: binding people with duct tape, beating them up, smearing their bodies with foul concoctions made up of ingredients such as eggs and manure.

That danger has become shockingly evident to Kathy Nice, who says her son, Matthew, was attacked four times by his wrestling teammates at William Tennet High School in Bucks County, Pa. In January, she says, Matthew was tied with duct tape and punched and kicked in the locker room.

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Seven team members were suspended for the attack, but the county district attorney, Alan Rubenstein, said the hazing was not committed with criminal intent and he decided not to prosecute.

Forty states have antihazing laws, and two others are considering them. But the severity of the penalties varies, and many of the laws, including Pennsylvania's, cover only college hazing.

"These hazing cases are tough to prosecute.... You get few political kudos and a lot of criticism," Nuwer says. In recent years there have been successful criminal cases and arrests in Texas, California, and Washington State. But "typically, ... they're given a very light sentence," he adds.

Moreover, many parents of teen victims will opt not to file a civil suit because "civil litigation involves emotional consequences to a young person," says Douglas Fierberg, a Washington-based lawyer who has sued on behalf of hazing victims.

Hazing is most prevalent in athletics, but Nuwer says it also takes place in "underground drinking clubs" and high school fraternities and sororities.

High school students are in some ways prime targets for hazing because "they want so desperately to belong," says Norm Pollard, director of the Counseling and Student Development Center at Alfred University in New York. "Young people will put themselves in dangerous situations just to be part of a group."

Adults' role

To end hazing, adults who come into contact with kids - parents, clergy, coaches - need to help teens learn "how to develop a sense of themselves apart from what other people think or what groups think," says Howard Stevenson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Young people, Mr. Stevenson says, need to be able to say to their peers, "this doesn't make sense. We don't have to give up group memberships, but there are some choices we, as teenagers, simply don't have to make."

For Matthew, remaining on the wrestling team was a combination of pride and a love of the sport. "We're from a long line of wrestlers," explains his mother. "He's an excellent wrestler; last year he was undefeated. He wasn't going to let these people tell him he can't wrestle." But now Matthew is being tutored at home. He left school in March, although he continued to compete until the wrestling season ended.

His mother is determined to get his case criminally prosecuted. "I'm not going to give up," she says. "This has changed my whole family's life."

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