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Upper St. Clair district officials aim to quash hazing

| Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013, 9:50 a.m.

Some parents question whether Upper St. Clair School District is doing enough to prevent seniors from hazing freshmen, although school officials and police say they're addressing the problem.

Staff members reaffirmed anti-bullying and anti-hazing messages to students because of an online video showing teens being paddled, Superintendent Patrick O'Toole told the school board on Monday. He said parents must pay attention to what kids are doing, too.

“We were all very disheartened, displeased and disappointed in the actions of our students during the summer. Obviously, some students didn't get the message,” O'Toole said.

About a dozen parents of freshmen, middle school students and alumni attended the meeting.

“What happened to our boys should not be perceived as ‘boys will be boys.' It was an assault,” said Billie Williams, a parent.

Parents said seniors told younger boys to meet at a park after dark. If they refused, they were warned they would endure worse beatings later. Someone recorded a senior paddling the boys' exposed buttocks. Some victims were given rides home, parents said.

Some of the mothers left the meeting saying they want more specific assurance that such hazing — an apparent tradition — will stop.

“We are only eight short months from this process beginning in our school district again,” Williams said.

Police charged three students with summary harassment and the school district disciplined them. Senior Judge Eugene Zielmanski dismissed the charges against the 17-year-olds this month. Their names were not released because they are underage, and the district would not comment on disciplinary matters.

Upper St. Clair police Chief Doug Burkholder said six or seven younger students, likely incoming freshmen, were identified as victims from the video and witness accounts. “We were led to believe there were more (victims), but no one else has come forward,” he said.

Rumors of hazing in years past led officers to patrol bus stops where incoming freshmen were to be dropped off, Burkholder said. This is the first year that police charged any students.

School board President Barbara Bolas said it's up to administrators to decide how to deliver warnings against hazing.

“I have every confidence the administration will implement the proper programs to drive home the message,” she said.

O'Toole said high school administrators met with all classes at the start of the school year to reiterate the policy banning bullying and hazing.

Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College near Indianapolis and author of several books on hazing, said it's not uncommon for hazing to occur even without links to sports teams or clubs. Most victims are reluctant to report what happens, he said.

“I've seen that over and over again,” Nuwer said, “either because the students … want to be part of a tradition, or more likely, because the peer pressure would be embarrassing.”

To quash hazing, Nuwer recommends districts use suspensions, expulsions, and warnings that officials will prosecute any hazing that reaches a criminal level.

Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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