Hazing is illegal in Massachusetts. Although most of us think of college hazing and frat movies such as the cult classic “Animal House” when we hear the word, it’s important for parents and students to understand that hazing is not limited to Greek life college fraternity systems.
A generally accepted hazing definition is the participation in humiliating and dangerous initiation activities that are imposed upon a candidate or pledge for membership into an exclusive group. College fraternities and sororities are often at the center of hazing incidents.
However, other groups commonly practice hazing rituals, including:
- High school sports teams
- College sports teams
- School Marching Bands
- Military Academies
- Police Academies
According to researchers, there has been at least one college hazing death every year in the United States since 1970. Studies also found that 50% of all high school students have experienced hazing.
Legal Definition of Hazing
Under Massachusetts law, the legal definition of hazing specifically relates to schools, academic organizations, students and others involved in dangerous hazing activities. The anti-hazing law states:
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. Such conduct shall include whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the weather, forced consumption of any food, liquor, beverage, drug or other substance, or any other brutal treatment or forced physical activity which is likely to adversely affect the physical health or safety of any such student or other person, or which subjects such student or other person to extreme mental stress, including extended deprivation of sleep or rest or extended isolation. Notwithstanding any other provisions of this section to the contrary, consent shall not be available as a defense to any prosecution under this action. —M.G.L.c269 §17
There are four key elements of the hazing law in Massachusetts:
- The hazing law applies to both public and private institutions;
- The offensive actions threaten the individual’s physical or mental health (or both);
- The “safety” of students or persons involved is at issue, and
- Consent or ‘willingness’ of the participant cannot be used as a legal defense.
Lawmakers were clear that the hazing laws in Mass apply to private schools and organizations as well as to public ones.
Further, the law against hazing covers psychological injuries as well as physical assaults.
The law also includes a reference to the “safety” of students and others. Safety has a few provisions under the statute, including compliance with the state’s overall hazing policy and the duty to report.
The duty to report requires all those who are present or who witness a hazing to notify police as soon as it is safe to do so. [see M.G.L. c269 §18]
The fourth and final element is perhaps the most important for anyone facing hazing charges. Massachusetts does not believe a participant in hazing can give true consent. Lawmakers have pointed to factors such as peer pressure, intentional or unintentional threats and the withholding of information about what will occur (secretive hazings).
Thus, the accused will not be permitted to use a victim’s consent to mitigate the charges against them in a court of law.
Examples of Hazing
The hazing laws in Massachusetts enumerate several examples of illegal activities such as whipping and beating. Under the broadest interpretation of the law, any form of physical contact perceived harmful by the participant can qualify as hazing, as can mental trauma.
Examples of hazing and common hazing rituals include:
- Paddling, beating, kicking, etc.
- Sleep deprivation
- Kidnapping, hooding, blindfolding and capturing
- Weather exposure
- Ice shocking
- Forced alcohol consumption and coerced guzzling
- Forced or coerced eating of vile / poisonous foods,
- Forced or coerced binge eating
- Forced isolation and abandonment
- Theft and stealing challenges
- Sexual embarrassment, public nudity, streaking, cross-dressing, etc.
- Branding, labeling or shaving parts of the body
- Verbal abuse for incorrect answers, and
- Physical violence of any kind.
Types of hazing like the examples listed can be referred to as mental hazing and/or violent hazing, physical hazing, “extreme hazing” and criminal hazing.
Legal consequences of hazing
Hazing can lead to school discipline, criminal charges and/or personal injury lawsuits in Massachusetts. While hazing in colleges and universities is increasingly reported on in the national news media, a growing number of high schools have been investigating students for hazing incidents.
Students accused of hazing often face immediate suspension from school while administrators and police conduct investigations.
In November of 2018, Worcester Technical High School canceled its football team’s season and suspended five players who were alleged to have participated in hazing a student athlete in the locker room.
- According to local Worcester press reports, school officials were tipped off about a video posted to social media that recorded the hazing incident. The superintendent involved the district attorney’s office along with police for investigations and conducting disciplinary hearings. The five students who were accused had to retain defense attorneys in order to protect their rights during these processes.
- In November of last year, a UMass Amherst fraternity was suspended from all operations after a grand jury returned indictments against the fraternity for hazing and providing alcohol to a minor.
- Under Massachusetts law, a student 18 years or older can face criminal charges and be tried as an adult. If students are younger than 18, juvenile court proceedings can be opened.
- Massachusetts’ anti-hazing law was enacted in response to the hazing death of a college freshman 25 years ago from alcohol poisoning he sustained during a binge eating and drinking ritual held by the fraternity he was pledging.
In cases of hazing deaths, indictments are obtained and defendants can be criminally prosecuted under voluntary or involuntary manslaughter laws.
If claims of coerced alcohol consumption are made, those accused will face a sea of scrutiny and serious investigations. An independent investigation should ensue as soon as possible so that a full and competent defense can be mounted.
Parents should seek the immediate help of an experienced defense attorney to protect all of their child’s rights, and to guard against unfair hearings, overzealous district attorneys and the harm of a criminal conviction.
Penalties for Hazing
Hazing is a misdemeanor offense in Massachusetts. As such, the statute of limitations for filing criminal hazing charges against someone is 6 years from the time of the alleged event. See the last section for more on time limits for filing charges.
If you are convicted and found to be a principal organizer or participant in a school hazing, you can face:
- A fine of up to $3,000, or
- Up to one year of imprisonment, or
- Both incarceration and a fine.
Prosecutors may bring additional charges related to a hazing incident, such as assault and battery, false imprisonment, furnishing alcohol to a minor and other felony or misdemeanor offenses.
If you fail to report a hazing to police as soon as is reasonably possible, you can be charged under the hazing laws and upon a finding of guilty will be fined up to $1,000. Often, investigators submit evidence to prosecute on both active hazing and failure to report offenses.
When Hazing Leads to Charges
It is important to understand that hazing charges do not mean you will be convicted of the crime. An experienced criminal defense lawyer who knows how to analyze the evidence objectively may find that the implied crime is not substantiated by the evidence.
In some hazing cases, a proper investigation and analysis of the evidence reveals that a positive defense is available to the accused. For instance, if you were wrongly identified as a participant, or the injuries received were a direct result of the victim’s own negligence.
Why Obtaining an Attorney is Important
Evidence can be misinterpreted by police and prosecutors in hazing cases. A skilled litigator with experience defending against hazing, bullying and similar offenses in the criminal courts of Massachusetts will be able to challenge the state’s evidence and efforts to convict.
There may be other options available to you, such as dropping the criminal charges altogether in exchange for community service and/or probation.
Important: Even if the alleged hazing incident occurred more than a year ago, it is still possible for charges to be brought. The criminal statute of limitations allows misdemeanor charges to be filed up to 6 years after the fact. If the alleged victim was under the age of 16, time will not begin tolling until he or she reaches that age or the incident is reported, whichever happens first.
Finding a good defense lawyer in Massachusetts can mean the difference between a conviction on serious hazing charges, or getting your life back on the right track.
You can read Oberhauser Law reviews here or you can contact my office to set up a free consultation with me to discuss your hazing charges and defense options.