Despite law, many still unsure when to sound hazing alarm

“No one was ever meant to get hurt,’’ said Ryan Carroll, who was charged with hazing and assault in a 2004 Sandwich case. “No one was ever meant to get hurt,’’ said Ryan Carroll, who was charged with hazing and assault in a 2004 Sandwich case. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)
By Stephanie Ebbert and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / November 15, 2010

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The crackdown was spurred by a fraternity initiation rite gone horribly wrong. A Zeta Chi pledge named Jay Lenaghan at American International College in Springfield passed out, then died after being encouraged to keep drinking. When Governor Michael Dukakis signed the state’s antihazing bill into law 25 years ago this month, he was quoted as saying, “This is the kind of conduct we’re not going to tolerate in this state.’’

But how to classify hazing that leaves no bodily harm — like the allegations last week that Needham High School girls’ soccer players blindfolded younger teammates, made one wear a dog collar, and hit two others in the face with pies? Needham school officials called it a clear violation of the antihazing law and barred the players from a state tournament. The players’ parents reacted with outrage and a lawsuit. Police and Norfolk County prosecutors are considering whether to bring charges.

The drama showed that three decades after hazing became an issue, many students and parents are still confused about what constitutes hazing. And authorities who thought they had made strides against it over the past decade are disappointed to hear so many armchair quarterbacks dismissing the reports.

“We worked hard at making the kids and the schools aware that that’s not tolerable — and it may well be illegal,’’ said Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘When I was in boot camp,’ or ‘When I was at Parris Island,’ ’’ Wetzel said. “My God, this isn’t the Marine Corps these kids are joining. It’s a high school soccer team. Especially disturbing are people who say, ‘Back in the day, when I was in high school.’ You’re 45 years old. Hardly anything you did in high school is legal today.’’

Hazing is defined in state law as any behavior that initiates a student into an organization and that “willfully or recklessly’’ endangers their physical or mental health. The law specifically covers whipping; beating; branding; forced calisthenics; exposure to weather; and forced consumption of any food, liquor, beverage, drug, or other substance. And it makes room for “any other brutal treatment or forced physical activity that could adversely affect the student’s health or safety or cause extreme mental stress.’’

But the law also relies on authorities’ subjective interpretation of what can “adversely affect’’ the student’s health or safety. Although most initiation rites could qualify as hazing, authorities rarely prosecute unless serious injury results.

“Unless it’s an extreme case and very serious case, we try to handle it through comprehensive school-based intervention and prevention programs,’’ said Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr.

“What some person finds as hazing, another is going to find as a childish prank,’’ Leone said.

Leone said he tells students: “Treat people the way you want to be treated. No reasonable person would say, ‘I want to have a collar around my neck and have a pie thrown at my face.’ You should know there will be consequences.’’

One of the highest-profile Massachusetts hazing incidents occurred in 2004 in Sandwich, where Garrett Watterson, 14, a freshman football player, had his ankles yanked out from under him and suffered internal injuries.

Ryan Carroll was one of two Sandwich players charged as adults with hazing and assault and battery. Seven other juveniles were charged with hazing. To this day Carroll, who lives in Somerville and works in Internet marketing for a car dealership, maintains that what he did was not hazing, just roughhousing gone awry.

Carroll, the team cocaptain, who had yelled out, “Freshman beat-down,’’ before the attack, was suspended for 10 days, kicked off the football team, and ultimately barred from playing basketball, too.

“I don’t feel I ever really stood a chance,’’ Carroll said. “I can argue all I want, but the fact of the matter is, the kid got hurt. Garrett should never have gotten hurt. No one was ever meant to get hurt. No one was ever meant to be humiliated, singled out, or anything like that.’’

Carroll sees a clear distinction between what happened in Sandwich and what is alleged to have happened in Needham — and it has to do with intent, not injury.

“Dog collaring them and dragging them around, making them do embarrassing stuff? That’s pretty much textbook teasing right there,’’ he said. “What happened in Sandwich was an unfortunate accident. It wasn’t a targeted attack. It was just fooling around. Boys being boys.’’

But the court found probable cause for the charges, which were continued without a finding. Carroll served one year of probation with conditions, including 200 hours of community service and restitution for Watterson’s out-of-pocket health expenses.

“When we were looking at these cases, it was very important that a message be sent,’’ said Brian Glenny, the Cape and Islands first assistant district attorney, noting that authorities need to help students understand what constitutes hazing. “In their mind, the idea of hazing may mean something completely different from what the statute prohibits. The end result to the person who’s hazed is the same thing. They’re being humiliated.’’

Some coaches and authorities say they draw a hard line on any initiation rites — even activities that could seem fairly innocent.

“I just don’t think there’s any place for it, because there’s always the chance someone is going to take it beyond or too far,’’ said Bob Souza, football coach at St. Sebastian’s School in Needham for 33 years.

Souza said his football players, acting on their own outside of school, sometimes shave their heads. He said he even discourages that, warning that a player who forces a teammate to join in could be kicked off the team.

Souza encourages team-building events, like Friday night dinners hosted by parents of the players in their homes.

Hazing has led to numerous deaths, which is why 44 states have antihazing laws, said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four books on hazing.

This year, for the first time since the 1970s, no one has died from hazing on an American college campus, he said.

But serious incidents continue to occur. And, said Nuwer, high-profile hazing among professional athletes — think Red Sox rookies dressed in drag or costumes — confuses the issue.

“The hazing by pro players has made it seem like it’s a form of entertainment, and some sportswriters have treated it like that,’’ Nuwer said.

Barry Haley, athletic director at Concord-Carlisle High School and president of the MIAA, said he encourages students and parents to accept the new terms.

“When I coached, there were things that kids did that we as coaches looked the other way,’’ Haley said. “There was physical abuse of younger kids. That’s the old-school way of doing it. It was a rite of passage, and we now know that those are not positive educational lessons for kids to learn. It’s a different time. It’s a different world.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at; Shelley Murphy can be reached at