Starting Saturday, middle and high school students in Pennsylvania can be criminally charged for hazing their peers, as new state regulations go into effect following several high-profile incidents at local schools.
The state's anti-hazing law had applied only to college students, but in May, Gov. Wolf signed a bill extending its penalties to seventh through 12th graders. The changes kick in just in time for the start of the 2016-17 school year, and about five months after Chester County officials revealed a culture of hazing at Conestoga High School in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District.
The amendments also require private and public secondary schools to write anti-hazing policies, post them on their websites, and provide all athletic coaches with copies.
Hazing is a third-degree misdemeanor. In addition to the possibility of jail time for a convicted student, the law now allows secondary schools, as well as colleges, to impose fines, probation, and suspension, and to withhold diplomas and transcripts. The amendments also add expulsion to the list of punishments.
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association is among the organizations that supported expansion of the anti-hazing law, and has long helped public schools develop policies. To guide educators in complying with the new regulations, the association has sent newsletters and distributed sample policies.
"We obviously feel it's a very important issue," said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the association. "We have been proactive with our members."
Hazing researchers say the practice, traditionally thought to involve mostly college students, is pervasive in high schools and even occurs in middle schools.
In March, Chester County District Attorney Thomas P. Hogan called the law's previous exclusion of younger students a "glaring omission." At that time, investigators said that upperclassmen on the football team at the Tredyffrin/Easttown school for years had made younger students clean the locker room in their underwear, and had placed their genitals on teammates' heads in a hazing ritual they called "No Gay Thursday."
Prosecutors said the hazing escalated into assault one day last October after a freshman tried to leave the locker room. Three seniors were charged in March for allegedly holding down the freshman and penetrating his rectum with a broom handle.
In fall 2014, the Central Bucks School District canceled the football season for Central Bucks High School West and fired the head coach because of reported hazing that included younger players' being forced to touch their teammates' genitals while clothed. Older players also wet down younger teammates and covered them with powder, said David Weitzel, former superintendent.
State Rep. Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin), who introduced the anti-hazing legislation last fall, celebrated its passage in May, saying the state's laws "need to reflect the severity of these actions and impose appropriate punishments."
The state Senate passed the bill unanimously, and the House approved it by 180-15.
Under state law, hazing includes situations that recklessly or intentionally endanger the mental or physical health or safety of a person as a condition of acceptance in a group.