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About 500 student-athletes and their parents were warned at a mandatory meeting at Shrewsbury High School on Aug. 30 that hazing would not be tolerated.
To drive home the severity of the issue, Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. spoke at the meeting.
"That was very well received," Shrewsbury High athletic director Jay Costa said.
According to Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 269, Section 17, hazing refers to "any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization, whether on public or private property, which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person."
Also according to Section 17, those found guilty of hazing are subject to a fine of up to $3,000 and-or imprisonment of up to one year.
Hazing returned to the news recently with the cancellation of Worcester Technical High School's final two football games after an alleged hazing incident in the team's locker room. At least five football players were barred from classes pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing and Worcester public schools School Safety Director Robert Pezzella said Thursday that the matter wouldn't be resolved until at least this week.
Massachusetts law requires all secondary schools to provide all school groups, including athletic teams, with a copy of the anti-hazing law.
The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association sponsors workshops to educate administrators, coaches and students about fostering a positive school climate, a respectful learning environment and a culture of safety, sportsmanship and respect, according to Peter Smith, MIAA assistant executive director for educational athletics.
Pezzella said hazing is addressed in the WPS student handbook, which all students and their parents are required to read, sign and return to school within the first month of school. High school principals are also required by law to discuss anti-hazing laws with their students, Pezzella said.
Because Worcester has so many high schools, Pezzella said it wouldn't be feasible to require all parents to attend an anti-hazing meeting, but prior to each of the three sports seasons all students trying out for sports must attend wellness seminars at their schools. Coaches and WPS athletic director Dave Shea also attend the seminars that address hazing, bullying, the concussion protocol and possession of drugs and alcohol.
"We have to take this from ground zero," Pezzella said. "Everybody needs to know the seriousness of any type of hazing that goes on, whether it's in a locker room or it's on the field or on the court, it's not going to be tolerated and the discipline action is going to be severe. So we understand that there is still some primitive thinking from student-athletes. We have to change that thought process, we have to change that culture and that's why it's imperative for us as educators and professionals to make sure that they get the most necessary information in order to make good decisions as not only teenagers, but as student-athletes representing their schools and to have some school pride."
Since Costa became athletic director at Shrewsbury High 13 years ago, he has held a training
workshop every August with the captains of each athletic team during which he discusses leadership and the laws and regulations concerning hazing.
In addition, before each of the three sports seasons, Shrewsbury High holds a parent-athlete night during which the school's zero-tolerance policy of hazing is presented. So some three-sport student-athletes will hear the anti-hazing message 12 times before they graduate.
"I think by the time the students have become juniors and seniors," Costa said, "a lot of them have memorized the presentation. So I try to do different things to spice it up, but for the most part the parents feel it's important that their kids hear that."
Costa said he believes the anti-hazing meetings have helped "a ton" in Shrewsbury High School not experiencing a hazing incident during his time as athletic director, but he also credits the character of the students and policies established by the school administration.
Northbridge High School's principal and athletic director meet with student athletes and parents each fall to discuss such issues as hazing, drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
"There's no guarantee that even that's going to work," Northbridge High football coach Ken LaChapelle said.
Five years ago, four junior football players at Northbridge High allegedly pressured a freshman player to drink urine. Suspensions were issued, but the freshman didn't press criminal charges.
"We didn't hide anything," LaChapelle said, "and sometimes that's the biggest key. That's something I would never do. If we know about it, then my principal is going to know about it and then he can do whatever he wants with it. I would never keep anything like that in house. As a staff, it did happen to us and it was ugly. Fox news was flying a helicopter over our practices, but we dealt with it."
LaChapelle is a Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in Massachusetts high school football history with more than 350 victories in 43 years as head coach. He's seen just about everything.
"Any time you mix ninth-graders with 12th-graders," LaChapelle said, "there's always going to be the bully kids. They exist, no matter what, and it's our job to try to corral them and try to take them under our wing and try to make them part of the family."
LaChapelle said Northbridge has one locker room for football players in Grades 9 through 12.
"I usually talk to my captains," he said, "about locker room decorum and making sure the kids are safe and things like that. It's a constant preach."
Tania Rich, athletic director at Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton, said student-athletes are warned to avoid hazing in the student handbook, the student-athlete handbook and at a meeting with students and parents at the beginning of each school year.
Prior to each sports season, Rich meets with Nashoba's coaches to discuss school policy and protocol on everything from transportation and physical exams to alcohol, chemical health, hazing and bullying. Rich said in her eight years as athletic director at Nashoba, no hazing has taken place.
"Our coaches and our students understand," she said, "the importance of being a team and not doing these kinds of activities. We have a zero-tolerance policy here. There would be consequences."
Before each season, West Boylston High School football coach Mike Ross informs his players and their parents that the school has no tolerance for drugs, alcohol and hazing.
"By talking to the kids the first day of practice," Ross said, "I think it sets a tone for the year."
In his 18 years as a head coach at Grafton, North and West Boylston, Ross said he's never had a hazing incident.
"Not to my knowledge," he said, "and if it did, the kid would be gone."
Hazing incidents may be rare, but they do exist. Two high school football teams in Maryland have been accused this fall of sexual-related hazing incidents.
High school athletic directors and coaches interviewed for this story agree that cyberbullying has become more of a problem than hazing even though they haven't experienced trouble with it yet.
"Social media is becoming a monster," LaChapelle said. "It's not becoming one, it is a monster. It's a bigger problem because it's done far away. You can be doing it while visiting your aunt in Canada."
"So I tell our kids, 'Stay off it (social media),'" Costa said. "Don't be a part of that."
"I think social media is a big problem," Ross said. "They're cyberbullying. It's all over the place. That's the new problem."
Holy Name High School athletic director Jim Manzello instructs each coach to inform his student-athletes that hazing is not acceptable and the consequences will be severe. Manzello said teachers and coaches are required to sign forms mandating them to inform their students of the ills of hazing. In Manzello's 31 years as athletic director, he can remember only one hazing incident about 20 years ago when three football players were suspended.
"It started out as a joke," he said, "as most of them probably do. Sometimes kids don't see what is classified as hazing as hazing. I would say most high school ones start out as jokes and someone goes too far."
Manzello said those so-called jokes are obviously not jokes and cannot be tolerated.
Contact Bill Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @BillDoyle15
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