The Damascus Hazing Incident
In October 2019, an external review by a law firm, WilmerHale, was released regarding a sexual assault that took place on October 31, 2018, an incident that received the most extensive national media coverage of any sports hazing occurrence in 2018, but which is representative of the dozens of such episodes that take place each year in high school athletic programs around the country. The situation involved four football players, all minors, who were allegedly attacked and sodomized with a broomstick in an unsupervised locker room at Damascus High School, a sports powerhouse that is one of 25 high schools in the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), the largest district in Maryland, which serves 160,000-plus students.
On the following day, the incident was reported to school district officials after victims disclosed to their parents what had happened and after social media postings by members of the team attempting to apologize to the victims became public. Upon learning of the allegations, MCPS administrators immediately fulfilled their mandatory reporting duties under the Maryland Child Abuse Reporting Act and contacted law enforcement officials. According to the police report compiled through interviews with the five alleged perpetrators and the four victims, the “brooming” ritual was a hazing practice that allegedly went back many years in the football program at the school.
In November 2018, four of the perpetrators were charged as adults with first-degree rape and other sexual assault charges, but each later had his case transferred to juvenile court. A fifth was charged as a juvenile with second-degree rape. All of the perpetrators negotiated plea deals, but because of the closed-nature of juvenile court proceedings, it is unclear precisely to what charges the five pleaded guilty and the punishments imposed on each.
The WilmerHale external review was commissioned to determine whether hazing was endemic to MCPS athletics and activity programs and to identify strategies that should be employed going forward to protect students from hazing, bullying and harassment. The value of such an external review is that one of the common threads noted in the criminal prosecutions and civil suits accompanying the many hazing incidents in high school sports that occur every year is that, almost without exception, the districts in question had anti-hazing policies in place for their schools in general and their athletics programs in particular, but those policies had not been effectively implemented in a substantive fashion likely to actually prevent hazing.
A two-page summary of the Damascus external review and the full-text of the report, which could serve as a blueprint for any school district committed to developing and implementing strategies for the prevention and remediation of hazing, are available on the MCPS website at www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org.
The External Review of the Damascus Hazing Incident
The review examined three key areas: 1) fostering a positive culture, 2) implementing robust supervision practices, and 3) ensuring timely reporting of incidents and appropriate responses.
The review concluded that, overall, “MCPS has fostered a generally positive culture around athletics and other extracurriculars,” and “MCPS has a robust set of district-wide regulations with respect to mandatory reporting requirements and procedures.” The report did, however, identify procedures to strengthen supervision and safety for students participating in school-sponsored after- school activities, including:
The Ooltewah Hazing Incident
In May 2019, a $750,000 settlement, initially agreed to in September 2018, was finalized in the case of John Doe v. Hamilton County Department of Education, a federal civil suit filed against an East Tennessee school district, a high school principal, an athletic director and a basketball coach related to a high school basketball hazing incident involving a former Ooltewah High School basketball player who required emergency surgery after his bladder was punctured in a hazing incident in which players were sodomized with pool cues. The plaintiff in Doe was a freshman on the Ooltewah High School basketball team, who as part of a hazing ritual that took place in the basement of a cabin in which the team was staying during a December 2015 road trip, was sodomized with a pool cue and sustained injuries so severe that he had to be rushed to a hospital for emergency surgery. Three other freshmen were also raped with the pool cue during the hazing.
The situation led to the cancellation of the remainder of the team’s 2015-16 basketball season. The three perpetrators of the attack were convicted in a juvenile court of aggravated rape and aggravated assault and received sentences of varying lengths. The school’s athletic director pleaded guilty to failure to report child abuse and entered a diversion program which upon completion will permit his record to be expunged. The head basketball coach pleaded not guilty to similar charges, arguing that the Tennessee Child Abuse Reporting Law is too vague concerning who is required to report instances of sexual assault, to whom the reports should be made, and how timely such reports must be.
The pleadings in the civil suit alleged knowledge by school personnel of a long history of hazing incidents in Ooltewah’s athletic program and a failure to develop and implement effective anti-hazing policies. Based on U.S. Supreme Court precedents, schools and personnel will be held strictly liable when someone in a position to take corrective action has knowledge that such harassment is occurring and exhibits deliberate indifference to remedying the situation, a two-prong analysis resulting in automatic liability if the criteria of knowledge and deliberate indifference are both established in a civil suit.
The External Reviews of the Ooltewah Hazing Incident
A 23-page report issued following an independent review by the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office and a 27-page report issued following an external investigation by the Spears, Moore Law Firm retained by the Hamilton County Board of Education set forth numerous recommendations regarding the strategies that schools should adopt when developing and implementing anti-hazing policies for athletic programs, including the following directives:
Other Hazing Studies and Recommendations
As the number of hazing incidents and lawsuits continues to rise, administrators, athletics personnel and activity supervisors are increasingly in need of resources to support their efforts to prevent hazing and satisfy their legal obligations to protect students from such harassment.
The National Study of Student Hazing, a research project published in 2008 utilizing survey responses from more than 11,000 students on 53 campuses across the United States and interviews with more than 300 staff and students from those schools, includes data regarding hazing in high schools and recommendations relevant to the development of anti-hazing policies by school districts. Available online at www.hazingstudy.org, the study was conducted by Dr. Elizabeth J. Allan and Dr. Mary Madden, associate professors in the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development.
The report was the most comprehensive examination of student hazing since High School Hazing: Initiation Rites in American High Schools was published in 2000 by Dr. Nadine Hoover and Dr. Norman J. Pollard of Alfred University in New York. The full-text of the work, based on survey responses from more than 1,500 high school students at more than 1,000 high schools in the United States, is available online at www.alfred.edu/hs_hazing.
The following are anti-hazing policy recommendations from those studies:
Lee Green is an attorney and Professor Emeritus at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, where for 30 years he taught courses in sports law, business law and constitutional law. He is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee. He may be contacted at Lee.Green@BakerU.Edu.