Hazing and Harassment
Hazing, Harassment and School District Liability
By William D. Berard III, Attorney At Law, Senior McGrath Trainer
For decades, hazing rituals have been as much a part of high school athletics as the zone defense and the forward pass. Hazing is the initiation of underclassmen and/or new additions to a particular athletic team to assimilate them into being “part of the team”. It can consist of anything from carrying a gym bag for their upperclassmen teammate to being subjected to brutal physical beatings and sexual assault. In the past, it was unheard of for teammates to discuss such activities outside of the locker room. Today, however, in our litigious society, it is essential that school districts not only become aware of such hazing activities, but also go out of their way to prevent such conduct from occurring within their athletic programs.
One of the major problems is the fact that coaches either participate in or acquiesce to the conduct. Athletic directors have the burden of overseeing the activities of their coaches both on and off the field. Administrators are often the last to know because this practice is so often well disguised and concealed by athletes and coaches alike. The philosophy of “what you don’t see can’t hurt you” clearly does not apply in this case.
In many instances, hazing can be criminal if the conduct falls within a criminal statute such as assault, abuse or harassment. In some situations, the conduct may also be a form of illegal discrimination under Federal Law. Title IX states that the student has a right to an education free from discrimination. If the conduct is sexual in nature it may constitute sexual harassment. The United States Supreme Court established a cause of action for same-sex sexual harassment in 1998. The Court stated that school districts must look at the conduct in context to determine if there is a violation of Title IX. As a result, conduct such as upperclass male athletes making derogatory sexual remarks or forcing sexually suggestive conduct upon an underclass male athlete can now be illegal discrimination as well as improper and/or criminal conduct.
Administrators and athletic directors today must be vigilant in policing their athletic programs to prevent this type of hazing from occurring. The following guidelines will help them do so:
- Conduct regular pro-active training for athletic directors, coaches and students and discuss proper behavior expectations
- Establish firm, realistic, zero tolerance school district policies with regard to misconduct such as hazing.
- Thoroughly investigate all complaints of locker room misconduct and recognize any inappropriate behavior.
- After any investigation of misconduct, follow-up to assure that the conduct doe not persist or resume.
Like many other problems facing administrators and athletic directors today, hazing is an issue that can be controlled with vigilance, pro-active training and zero tolerance discipline. Hazing, like other forms of harassment, must be identified before it can be corrected. To do so sufficiently, school districts have a duty to educate, train, investigate and follow-up.
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