“Old school” hazing was an attempt to bond a group together – freshmen had to “pay their dues” by washing the uniforms or carrying the gear. But what has happened at Webster (2001), Norman (2016), Bixby (2017) and others is not a bonding experience. Those were assaults preceeded by school hazing. Hazing by definition is any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule and risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.
And, no, it is not your imagination. School hazing really is happening more often. Nor are we the only state with this problem. The Associated Press looked at sexual violence in school sports from 2011 to 2015 across the country. They found 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults in K-12 – and that’s what’s reported. Of these the vast majority of assaults happened to boys. The assaults happened in all types of sports. The nature of the injuries included anal penetration, grinding genitals into the face or body of another and grabbing genitals. Child-on-child assault is more prevalent than adult-on-child assault in schools.
Elementary and secondary schools are not required to track sexual assaults. And many try to conceal it. Disappointingly, coaches are often aware of these behaviors. In the Norman incident, there were coaches on the bus when the assaults happened. In some cases, the coaches, and indeed sometime the whole community, closes ranks around the perpetrators rather than the victims. The school’s reputation or the team’s reputation may be placed ahead of the safety of the kids.
One explanation the experts put forth for how we got into this situation is the idea that each year, the victims of last year’s hazing are now hazing others. They make it a little worse than they got. So, there is a downward spiral of behavior. I suppose this could be true if no adults are stepping in to stop the behavior.
Assaults that are categorized as “roughhousing” or “hazing” or “horseplay” – just as we’ve seen in our community recently – may not be stopped because the reality of the harm that is inflicted is being minimized by adults. Even minor incidents of real hazing (having to sing for your supper perhaps) are remembered well into old age. Actual assaults are not only remembered but typically have lifelong negative consequences for the victims.
Often, the victims themselves will facilitate this cover up. Boys are so humiliated by this treatment, that they do not want others to know it happened. The desire to belong, which is so intense in kids of this age, overcomes self-protection. To be labeled the snitch or the rat is seen as just as bad, if not worse, than the physical act of assault.
Attacking this problem will require attention from a variety of people and entities. Coaches and teachers must supervise students, even older students, to prevent violence. Administrators must fight the urge to “cover up” and instead investigate and halt the behavior. Parents must be alert to changes in behavior and investigate their concerns that may start as just a feeling in the gut. The criminal justice system needs to aggressively pursue these cases. I have seen far too many potential criminal charges declined because the only evidence is the victim’s testimony.
The civil justice system has a role to play as well. While these are challenging cases, schools are not immune from being sued for such assaults if there was notice before the assault occurred. If you or your child is interested in learning about your legal rights regarding school hazing or sexual assault at school, contact Koller Trial Law today.