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Too Cruel for School

updated 11/03/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/2003 AT 01:00 AM EST

Victor Reichstein knew his son Daniel was frightened. After preseason practice for the Mepham High football Pirates in suburban Bellmore, N.Y., last summer, the 14-year-old ninth grader told his parents he and other freshmen were being pushed around by older players. Concerned that teen hazing had gone too far, Reichstein went to the coach, who promised to handle it. But several weeks later Daniel received a warning from one of his tormentors. "Don't even think about sleeping at football camp," Reichstein says the bully told his child. "And don't you dare tell." Reichstein's wife, Kristina, went immediately to Mepham's principal, who said that while the older boy would get a talking-to, he would still be allowed to accompany the team on its upcoming five-day training camp in Pennsylvania. "I wasn't happy, but I abided by the decision," Reichstein recalls. "If my son wanted to play, I had to send him."

It's a decision he wishes he could take back. According to prosecutors in Wayne County, Pa., three older players—including the boy Reichstein says threatened his son—turned a camp cabin into a chamber of horrors, sodomizing at least three freshmen with broomsticks, golf balls and pine cones while teammates watched. Parents learned of the torture only after the victims returned home, complaining of pain and bleeding (Reichstein's son was not attacked). If convicted on charges of rape, assault and kidnapping, the accused hazers could serve up to 20 years in prison. "They were supposed to be in positions of leadership," says Wayne County district attorney Mark Zimmer, who hopes to try the trio as adults. "These crimes are horrific."

They are not, however, isolated. Once a problem primarily associated with fraternity row, a slew of hazing crimes involving high school athletes has heightened fears that age-old rites of passage are going to dangerous new extremes. In May a disturbing video of high school girls in Northbrook, Ill., being covered in excrement by older schoolmates in a "powder puff" hazing ritual led to battery charges against several students. In Bridge Creek, Okla., in April baseball players allegedly held younger boys while they were beaten with a 1x4 board—in one case, say prosecutors, the beating was so severe the board broke over a child's back. In St. Amant, La., two 18-year-olds are facing battery charges (a third pleaded guilty) for allegedly tying a 10th grader to a bench in October 2002, sitting naked on his face and pressing a foreign object between his buttocks. "Hazing has escalated to behavior that is now horrible, shocking and producing many injuries," says Norman Pollard, director of the counseling center at New York's Alfred University, who coauthored a 2000 study that showed nearly half of U.S. high school students experienced some form of hazing rituals, ranging from silly to lethal.

Because there are no national statistics tracking the practice, it's impossible to know if it is really on the rise, but no one disputes that when hazing gets out of hand, it can become criminal. Says Dr. Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists: "It causes kids to engage in behavior that can put them in emotional and physical danger."

Often it leads to the kind of psychological scarring suffered by James Stewart, now 21, who was a 15-year-old freshman at a Stow, Ohio, high school in 1997 when he tried to join the wrestling team. Stewart says several boys on the team repeatedly duct-taped his ankles and wrists and, in separate incidents, prodded his clothed buttocks with a broom handle. "I kept telling them, 'No, no, don't do that,' " he says. "But they went ahead and did it." His attackers were later convicted of assault in juvenile court. "I found out later," he says, "they were doing it to toughen me up."

The idea that hazing is somehow good for the victim—and the team—can make bringing attackers to justice difficult. Robin O'Bannon, a prosecutor in the St. Amant case, says she faces intense community pressure to drop the matter. "It's the sports culture," says O'Bannon. "If this involved members of the chess club, you'd see outrage on every front."

Back in Bellmore, parents who have spoken out about the hazing have received anonymous threatening letters. "[Mine] said my family and I would get the same treatment as the boys in camp if we don't shut up," says Reich-stein. Instead, they have contacted politicians and formed a group that aims to make sure the local school board enforces its own disciplinary rules. As for football, the current season has been canceled. And while many in town want to put the ugly incident behind them, others are determined to take a stand. "Five coaches take these kids to a camp and don't know what happened," says Mary Tripp, whose daughter graduated from Mepham. "I have a son going there in two years. We can't put up with this."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
Diane Herbst in Bellmore, Angie Isidro Bresnahan in Washington, D.C., Lorna Grisby in Chicago, Kathy Ehrich in Pittsburgh and Steve Barnes in Little Rock

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