The allegations were horrific: Two football players at an academically elite high school held down a smaller freshman teammate trying to escape a hazing ritual, while a third used a broom handle to penetrate the younger boy's rectum.

The three Conestoga High School students were charged with assault, unlawful restraint, and other counts - but not hazing.

The lack of a hazing charge was the result of a "glaring omission" in state law, said Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan.

Pennsylvania is one of 44 states with anti-hazing laws, which vary widely. The commonwealth's statute applies only to college students, even though experts concur that hazing among high-schoolers is almost ubiquitous. One study found that it happens not only among sports teams, but in bands, honor societies, and church groups, with 11/2 million students affected.

The state House overwhelmingly has passed a bill, now in the Senate Education Committee, that would broaden the hazing law to include seventh- through 12th graders. Under the current law, hazing is a third-degree misdemeanor, and conviction could result in fines, probation, and the withholding of diplomas.

Last week, state Sen. Andy Dinniman (D., Chester), the committee's minority chairman, urged the majority chairman, Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), to call for a vote. Hogan said he supported that move.

Dinniman said he plans to introduce an amendment requiring schools to give coaches written copies of their anti-hazing policies and to lay out penalties for violations.

"While the Conestoga High situation was criminal in action, broadening anti-hazing statutes would be a preventative measure that could go a long way in deterring hazing from reaching the serious criminal level it did at Conestoga," Dinniman wrote to Smucker.

For at least the last several years, hazing within the Conestoga High School football team included upperclassmen making younger students clean the locker room in their underwear and players putting their genitals on teammates' heads, the Chester County district attorney reported on March 4.

Officials say the hazing escalated one day in October, when the alleged assault occurred after the freshman player tried to leave instead of cleaning the locker room.

Tredyffrin/Easttown School District officials declined to comment Friday, citing the school district's continuing investigation into coach supervision and potential policy violations. In a March 4 letter to families, the superintendent said the athletic director emphasizes each season that there is no tolerance for hazing.

Escalation is common in hazing cases, said Emily Pualwan, executive director of the national nonprofit HazingPrevention.Org.

"Things can go down a slippery slope pretty quickly," she said.

Recent lawsuits and news reports have trained new attention on high school hazing, she said.

Researchers at Alfred University in New York, who conducted a national hazing study of college students in 2000, were surprised to learn that so many students reported they were first hazed in high school or middle school.

"Many of them will do anything to be able to belong," said anti-hazing advocate Norman Pollard, dean of students at Alfred and one of the study's researchers.

Advocates say adequate adult supervision, community collaboration, education, opportunities for healthy team building, and changes in school culture can help prevent hazing.

"The problem is it's always been a dirty little secret people are trying to keep in the dark," said Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services for the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Hopkins, who has worked in hazing prevention for more than two decades and is a former official in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, said "the more horrendous cases" get publicity.

But, he said, "One hundred percent of high school students involved in a club or organization are at risk of being hazed."