Hazing News

Florida case ruled non-hazing by board

Hazing law takes on improper activity
It’s a third-degree felony


Hazing has long been a part of sports.

But the exploits of young athletes have resulted in more disciplinary action in recent decades, perhaps because there are more ways to get caught, especially in the internet age where young people are posting photos and videos of events they might think twice about later.

A video posted recently on drew some members of the Melbourne High volleyball team into a review of possible hazing.

It may have drawn attention because the poster labeled it “Volleyball Hazing,” but a review by school officials determined the video did not meet the definition of hazing, which is illegal in Florida.

“Number one, there was no violation of board policy,” said Wes Sumner of Brevard’s district communications office, “and, number two, no finding of any criminal wrongdoing.”

The video showed newer members of the volleyball team being hit with pillows by boys not on the team while attending a gathering at a residence. According to Andrea Alford, director of district security, there was adult supervision at the house.

“They are all excellent students having a get-together at a student’s home,” she said. “It was basically kids playing.”

There was profanity on the video, along with the pillow bashing, but it was determined not to be hazing because the activity didn’t meet the board’s own threshold of causing harm.

The central question about hazing is simple: What is it?

The Florida legislature passed a hazing law in 2005 that refers to anything involving a violation of law, physical brutality or any “forced physical activity that could adversely affect the physical health or safety of the student . . . (or) mental health or dignity. . .” It is a third-degree felony.

Melbourne principal Jim Willcoxon referred the hazing charge to Alford’s office and to the area superintendent. He also got the opinion of the school’s resource officer, Melbourne policeman Stan Smith.

“He and I identified the majority of students on the video, and I called them down one by one, met with them individually and asked them what was going on, and they explained,” Willcoxon said. “(They) basically all said the same story.”

Brevard Schools has a formal policy, older than the state law by at least five years, pinpointing any act that “causes or creates a substantial risk of causing mental or physical harm.”

In both cases, consent of the victim doesn’t erase legal liability.

Hank Nuwer of Evansville, Ind., who has written books on hazing and tracks incidents nationally, has something resembling an I-know-it-when-I-see-it definition.

“The common sense line of discipline and abuse is the line that I would use,” he said. In defining hazing, he looks for “something that most right-thinking adults would consider is wrong. And so, anything physical — pummeling — anything that involves alcohol — because we’ve seen the disastrous result (and) besides it is illegal — and anything that involves improper touching, on up to the very improper touching.”

It is in this area that hazing has taken a turn in recent years, capturing both media and legal attention.

At an August football camp involving a high school from Las Vegas, N.M, a town of 14,000, it was reported that six veteran players sodomized six younger players with a broomstick. It resulted in coaching resignations and divided the town.

This was a team with three consecutive state title game appearances, but several star players were suspended and the case was referred to legal authorities. The school system upheld the suspensions three weeks ago.

The coaches drew criticism with claims of lack of supervision. Nuwer said that is the reason this type of incident has become more common since 1995, particularly in the past two years.

“Sometimes you wonder if (young athletes are) seeing it and imitating it in the sort of a fashion where they go to a sports camp and they compete against each other. It’s part of the lingo, and it gets passed on,” he said. “When you’re seeing so many incidents at sports camps, for example, or on the buses afterwards, you see what needs to be done, and that’s stepped-up adult supervision. These coaches can’t assume they’ve got good kids and that they won’t try something one day, or that one player won’t.”

Nuwer theorizes that one unruly player can begin something extreme, making it easier for others to join. He has been studying the subject for years, having gone to a school where a hazing victim died in the 1970s.

He credited Eileen Stevens, whose son was killed in a hazing incident at Alfred (N.Y.) University in 1978, saying her work with prosecuting attorneys began to pay off with more enforcement in the 1980s.

Closer to home, a spring hazing incident of a sexual nature involving Sebastian River High baseball players resulted in player suspensions and the removal of coaches. In September, a Sebastian River Middle School team-hazing incident resulted in the curtailing of the rest of its soccer season.

In both cases involving Indian River County students, the athletes were on team trips at the time.

Alford said coaches at each Brevard school are reminded of hazing policies each August and required to tutor their own players on the subject. In addition to doing that, Melbourne baseball coach Pete Donovan, coaching for more than a decade, stopped taking his team on trips requiring an overnight stay. He’s heard too many stories of summer ball shenanigans from players.

“We sit them down big-time before the season starts, so we make sure nothing is going on,” he said. “In the last 10 years, I have not taken them to a spring break tournament, because I try to avoid the hassle of that.”

Brevard schools policy

The Board believes that hazing activities of any type are inconsistent with the educational process and prohibits all such activities at any time in school facilities, on school property, and at any school-sponsored events.
Hazing shall be defined for purposes of this policy as performing any act or coercing another, including the victim, to perform any act of initiation into any class, team, or organization that causes or creates a substantial risk of causing mental or physical harm. Permission, consent, or assumption of risk by an individual subjected to hazing shall not lessen the prohibitions contained in this policy.
Administrators, faculty members, and other employees of the School District shall be alert particularly to possible situations, circumstances, or events which might include hazing. If hazing or planned hazing is discovered, the students involved shall be informed by the discoverer of the prohibitions contained in this policy and shall be ordered to end all hazing activities or planned activities immediately. All hazing incidents shall be reported immediately to the Superintendent. Students, administrators, faculty members, and other employees who fail to abide by this policy may be subject to disciplinary action and may be held personally liable for civil and criminal penalties in accordance with law.
The Superintendent shall distribute this policy to all students and District employees, and shall incorporate it into building, staff, and student handbooks. It shall also be the subject of discussion at employee staff meetings or in-service programs.
Florida Hazing Law

(1) As used in this section, “hazing” means any action or situation that recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student for purposes including, but not limited to, initiation or admission into or affiliation with any organization operating under the sanction of a postsecondary institution. “Hazing” includes, but is not limited to, pressuring or coercing the student into violating state or federal law, any brutality of a physical nature, such as whipping, beating, branding, exposure to the elements, forced consumption of any food, liquor, drug, or other substance, or other forced physical activity that could adversely affect the physical health or safety of the student, and also includes any activity that would subject the student to extreme mental stress, such as sleep deprivation, forced exclusion from social contact, forced conduct that could result in extreme embarrassment, or other forced activity that could adversely affect the mental health or dignity of the student. Hazing does not include customary athletic events or other similar contests or competitions or any activity or conduct that furthers a legal and legitimate objective.
(2) A person commits hazing, a third degree felony, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083, when he or she intentionally or recklessly commits any act of hazing as defined in subsection (1) upon another person who is a member of or an applicant to any type of student organization and the hazing results in serious bodily injury or death of such other person.
(3) A person commits hazing, a first degree misdemeanor, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083, when he or she intentionally or recklessly commits any act of hazing as defined in subsection (1) upon another person who is a member of or an applicant to any type of student organization and the hazing creates a substantial risk of physical injury or death to such other person.
(4) As a condition of any sentence imposed pursuant to subsection (2) or subsection (3), the court shall order the defendant to attend and complete a 4-hour hazing education course and may also impose a condition of drug or alcohol probation.
(5) It is not a defense to a charge of hazing that:
(a) The consent of the victim had been obtained;
(b) The conduct or activity that resulted in the death or injury of a person was not part of an official organizational event or was not otherwise sanctioned or approved by the organization; or
(c) The conduct or activity that resulted in death or injury of the person was not done as a condition of membership to an organization.
(6) This section shall not be construed to preclude prosecution for a more general offense resulting from the same criminal transaction or episode.
(7) Public and nonpublic postsecondary educational institutions whose students receive state student financial assistance must adopt a written antihazing policy and under such policy must adopt rules prohibiting students or other persons associated with any student organization from engaging in hazing.
(8) Public and nonpublic postsecondary educational institutions must provide a program for the enforcement of such rules and must adopt appropriate penalties for violations of such rules, to be administered by the person at the institution responsible for the sanctioning of such organizations.
(a) Such penalties at community colleges and state universities may include the imposition of fines; the withholding of diplomas or transcripts pending compliance with the rules or pending payment of fines; and the imposition of probation, suspension, or dismissal.
(b) In the case of an organization at a community college or state university that authorizes hazing in blatant disregard of such rules, penalties may also include rescission of permission for that organization to operate on campus property or to otherwise operate under the sanction of the institution.
(c) All penalties imposed under the authority of this subsection shall be in addition to any penalty imposed for violation of any of the criminal laws of this state or for violation of any other rule of the institution to which the violator may be subject.
(9) Rules adopted pursuant hereto shall apply to acts conducted on or off campus whenever such acts are deemed to constitute hazing.
(10) Upon approval of the antihazing policy of a community college or state university and of the rules and penalties adopted pursuant thereto, the institution shall provide a copy of such policy, rules, and penalties to each student enrolled in that institution and shall require the inclusion of such policy, rules, and penalties in the bylaws of every organization operating under the sanction of the institution.

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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