Cruel and Usual Punishment


A 15-year-old is duct-taped and thrown against a school locker, then held down while his teammates insert a plastic knife into his rectum. A Staten Island teenager is ritually paddled at football camp until he bleeds. A group of freshmen soccer players are dragged across the muddy field of a suburban Baltimore high school. A South Carolina wrestling coach resigns after a student claims he was sexually assaulted with a broomstick during an initiation rite. A Texas football player is treated for fluid in his lungs after being severely beaten by veterans on the team.

Recent reports on hazing, centered on Trumbull High School in Connecticut—where a sophomore was brutalized by members of the wrestling team, who have since been arrested—have spurred a torrent of editorial ink, a televised town meeting, calls for federal legislation, and the usual finger-pointing and shock. Traditionally, hazing has been passed off as a harmless ritual of male bonding and group identity formation, a detour on the way to manhood. Lately, however, more people have noticed what C. Taylor Crothers’s pictures, seen here, make plain: Hazing is an elaborately institutionalized form of abuse and, perversely, a community-sanctioned crime.

“The question isn’t how much hazing is acceptable,” says Mark Peters, an attorney who has litigated federal class-action suits on child welfare. “The question is how much abuse is acceptable” to society. What happened in Connecticut, suggest many legal experts, is analagous to the horror stories in which courts end up removing children from parents who snuff out cigarettes on their arms. Forcing the newest squirt to carry the team equipment is obviously not the same as hog-tying him and pinning him in a gym locker. Or is it? According to Frederick D. Paoletti Jr., the lawyer representing Daniel Scinto, the Trumbull High School wrestling team co-captain now facing assault charges, the sophomore’s injuries were the “result of a tradition to which team members willingly submitted.” Although the hazing may have “gotten out of hand,” there wasn’t “any intention for anyone to be harmed physically or to do anything against anybody’s will.” It was all, said Paoletti, “done in jest and fun.”

“It’s easy,” says Peters, “to pull a kid out of a home if the mom is throwing him against the wall.” Establishing the culpability of guardians who stand by while someone else harms a kid is a more difficult process. Yet “we know now that schools have a real obligation to be watching what kids are doing during schooltime,” he says. “It’s not only abuse affirmatively to hurt a child—it’s abuse to allow someone else to abuse a child when you know that’s going on.”