Blog: Avoiding the Legal Haze of Hazing

As high schools and colleges around the country open their doors to a new crop of student-athletes, it is worth keeping in mind the recent decision in Mathis v. Wayne County Board of Education [2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20282]. In Mathis, the mothers of two 7th-grade boys sued Waynesboro (Tenn.) Middle School over a series of incidents of sexual misconduct by members of the boys' basketball team and coach David Sisk's deliberate indifference in stopping it.

The two boys argued that Sisk was almost never in the locker room after practice, which turned the locker room into "chaos" and a "wild, insane, crazy" environment in which certain 8th-grade players frequently pulled "pranks" on 7th-grade players. One common prank involved various 8th-graders gathering around a 7th-grader and humping and gyrating against him.

While Sisk acknowledged that "horseplay" did go on between the players, he stated that when he observed conduct that was not appropriate, he would make the offender run as punishment or might suspend the player if the conduct was particularly inappropriate. From his deposition, it was clear that Sisk's definition of "horseplay" was rather broad. For example, with regard to an incident that occurred after basketball practice, when three 8th-graders grabbed one of the plaintiffs and held him down while inserting a magic marker into his rectum, Sisk testified that it was "horseplay that got out of hand."

When the marker incident was brought to the attention of Ryan Keaton, the school's principal, Keaton called off practice for the next two days and discretely interviewed the individuals involved. The four 8th-graders involved were eventually suspended for hazing, while Sisk received a written reprimand.

While individual players involved in such cases could be held both criminally and civilly liable for their actions, plaintiffs are much more likely to sue a school's coach and administrators for violating the portion of Title IX that criminalizes student-on-student sexual harassment. To prevail on such a claim, students must show that 1) the sexual harassment was severe, pervasive and objectively offensive, such that it deprived them of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school; 2) the funding recipient had actual knowledge of the sexual harassment; and 3) the funding recipient was deliberately indifferent to the harassment.

While Mathis works its way through the courts, coaches and athletic administrators elsewhere should keep an eye out for any misconduct - and, once they hear of any hazing and other inappropriate behavior, they must take immediate steps to punish those involved. If they fail to take such steps, they should not be surprised when they end up in court.

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