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Sheryl Essenburg, a Sangamon County assistant state’s attorney who prosecutes sex offenses, said touching, even if it involves genitals, isn’t necessarily a sex offense if there’s no intent to arouse or obtain sexual gratification.

Moderator: OUR OPINION. Families of victims vigorously would dispute Ms. Essenburg’s  contention.
By Bruce Rushton
GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Hank Nuwer hears reports of high school athletes sexually abusing younger players at least once a week.

“The sexual assaults are pretty much constant since 1995,” said Nuwer, a Franklin College professor who has tracked hazing incidents since the 1970s. “There are so many instances of this in small towns now that every principal and every coach ought to be awake to it.”

In many towns, high school hazing — particularly incidents with sexual overtones — is a taboo subject, with locker room activities kept behind closed locker-room doors.

As such, too many school officials are caught unprepared when such incidents take place.

In Michigan, a 15-year-old pleaded guilty to gross indecency last month, the third of four high school baseball players charged for crimes in connection with a hazing.

In Missouri, a half-dozen high school basketball players were charged after an alleged hazing at a summer basketball camp that plaintiffs say involved sexual abuse.

And in Minnesota, an 18-year-old pleaded guilty to a felony charge of aiding and abetting indecent exposure after admitting that he’d held down a 16-year-old boy after hockey practice while another player, who was nude, tried touching him in a sexual manner.

Officials at Virden High School, in central Illinois, were caught off guard last month after a senior reportedly held his genitals to a freshman football player’s face while the freshman was being held down.

Virden school officials refuse to say exactly what happened, although they don’t dispute the gist of the reports spreading through the town of 3,500.

“I’m not going to address that,” schools Superintendent Ron Graham said, although School Board President Stephen Furman admitted the reports aren’t entirely accurate. He wouldn’t elaborate.

One thing is clear: Virden High School wasn’t prepared.

Head football coach Bruce Paisley talked to former players and was astonished by what they told him about what goes on when adults leave the locker room.

And the school’s hazing policy consists of nine words: “Soliciting, encouraging, aiding or engaging in hazing is prohibited.”

The policy does not define hazing, or say how administrators should respond to allegations, or, indeed, how kids who are hazed or who witness hazing can safely come forward.

By contrast, a hazing policy published by the National Federation of State High School Associations is two pages long and contains seven sections, not only defining hazing, but outlining how officials should respond to reports.

In Virden, district officials say they will revise their policies to address hazing, including spelling out the need for witnesses to report what they’ve seen.

Three of the Virden players involved returned to the team and school after missing one game and serving five-day suspensions. A fourth has been thrown off the team and must attend an alternative school until at least January.

But the town remains divided.

“Things are maybe a little more stable, but I don’t think they’re completely calmed down yet,” Virden Police Chief Scott Mayeda said. “There are still some people who have some serious emotions about this situation, and it may take some time.”

Responding to hazing incidents can be difficult, and the difficulty often ratchets up when sexually inappropriate behavior is involved.

“We think there’s certainly a prevalence of that type of behavior,” said Norman Pollard, dean of students at Alfred University in New York. “There are some school districts that do absolutely nothing. They view it as boys being boys, the tradition of the team. The other extreme is where there’s not only school action, but criminal notification as well.”

Virden school officials called police but did not file a formal complaint or ask for an investigation. District officials say it’s up to parents to file complaints with law enforcement, which has not happened.

Sheryl Essenburg, a Sangamon County assistant state’s attorney who prosecutes sex offenses, said touching, even if it involves genitals, isn’t necessarily a sex offense if there’s no intent to arouse or obtain sexual gratification.

“If their intent was to be disgusting, it’s probably not a sex offense,” she said.

Experts agree: No form of hazing is OK. Although taping players to goalposts or stuffing them in lockers might seem like harmless fun, hazing tends to escalate, they say.

“Once the tradition starts, you can’t rely on high school kids to keep it in line,” Nuwer said.

“The kids who were hazed the previous year tend to be the hazers the next year,” Pollard said. “What they do is ratchet it up a notch, make it a little more degrading, make it a little more dangerous.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of 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 new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

One reply on “Sheryl Essenburg, a Sangamon County assistant state’s attorney who prosecutes sex offenses, said touching, even if it involves genitals, isn’t necessarily a sex offense if there’s no intent to arouse or obtain sexual gratification.”

Where do these State’s Attorney’s get off saying that sexual hazing has no sexual intent? The same thing happened in the East Carter Hazing, so those boys are probably going to end up with a slap on the wrist. I think these prosecutors would have a different outlook on the situation if their own family was a victim.

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