School violence experts disagree whether an alleged incident involving six St. Ansgar High School students was hazing or bullying, but seemingly similar accusations have resulted in criminal charges at other schools.
In Clarion-Goldfield, three football players accused of hazing underclassmen teammates were charged with felony sexual assault. The allegations were contact between a “finger or hand and the genitalia or anus of the other person, or by aiding and abetting in said act,” allegedly as part of an initiation, according to court documents.
In 2014, a high school in New Jersey cancelled the rest of its football season amid allegations upperclassman repeatedly “aped” freshman teammates in the locker room.
The difference in charges, experts say, often comes down what schools, law-enforcement and prosecutors consider hazing.
Iowa Code describes hazing as forced activity which endangers the physical health or safety of a student for the purpose of initiation or admission into, or affiliation with, any organization in connection with a school, college or university.
The anti-hazing website, hazingprevention.org, expands the definition to anything done to members of a group or team, new or not, that causes embarrassment, ridicule or emotional harm.
The St. Ansgar police report does not say if the alleged victim in St. Ansgar was a member of the football team. Officials have not said if the victim was a member.
Dr. Tim Marchell, director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell University, said whether or not the behavior is hazing or bullying shouldn’t diminish how it is handled.
Allegations of a student walking down the hallway, being grabbed and restrained while he is groped around the genitals are very serious, he said.
“Our sexuality is a vulnerable dimension of a young person’s identity and this is a pretty serious action to be doing,” he said. “It’s a pretty serious form of abuse.”
A combination of education and accountability is the most effective response to incidents of school violence, including bullying or hazing, he said.
“Students need to understand what the standards of the community and the school are and have to be told what constitutes hazing or bullying, and have explained to them what the consequences of engaging in that behavior would be,” he said.
If this behavior still occurs, there must be meaningful consequences, Marchell said.
St. Ansgar Schools Superintendent Jody Gray said school officials spoke with some students after the incident. She did not say which students, how many were spoken to or what was said.
The district has not yet decided what topics will be covered in next year’s school assemblies or staff professional development.
There are no plans for additional discussions this year, Gray said.
— Molly Montag