Cooper: Nip hazing before it begins

Ooltewah High School head basketball coach Andrew "Tank" Montgomery has his hands full not only with his team but now with the rape and assault charges leveled at three of his now-dismissed players.

According to Tennessee law, every secondary school student in the state must be informed during the first month of a new school year about the state law against hazing, its ramifications as a criminal offense and the penalties that may be imposed by local school districts.

If an athletics director, the coach of a specific team or the sponsor of a particular organization chooses to reiterate those policies to teams and groups as a body, all the better.

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For whatever reason, a group of basketball players at Ooltewah High School didn't pay attention to, choose to ignore or didn't get the message. Now, a freshman member of the team is hospitalized after being punctured by a pool cue, three other members were hazed and three players have been charged with aggravated rape and assault while on a trip to Gatlinburg for a pre-Christmas tournament.

The three players charged - now dismissed from the team - are juveniles, but that doesn't mitigate their culpability. They may have thought they were engaging in what to some point may have been a harmless ritual, but hazing is just as illegal as rape and assault.

State law defines hazing as "any intentional or reckless act on or off [school district] property by one student acting alone or with others which is directed against any other student, that endangers the mental or physical health or safety of the student, or which induces or coerces a student to endanger such student's mental or physical health or safety."

It further states the local school district shall adopt a written policy prohibiting hazing by any student or organization under the sanction of the local education association.

In Hamilton County, hazing could fall under the district's definition of bullying, harassment and cyber-bullying, which is "unwanted, aggressive, repeated behaviors that involve a real or perceived power imbalance. The imbalance of power involves the use of physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity to control or harm others."

Further, the 2014-15 Ooltewah High School student handbook states "hazing is strictly prohibited" but does not address it more broadly. However, another section does flesh out more details on the school's bullying policy.

The Ooltewah Middle School parents athletic participation form is more explicit, reading: "Hazing is prohibited at all times. Hazing involves any act that subjects teammates to mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule, whether it is done in person, social media, or etc. In some instances hazing constitutes a criminal act. At a minimum, hazing may lead to immediate dismissal from a team."

If that is not the policy of most schools - immediate dismissal from the team, at a minimum - it should be. Certainly, there is a fine line between kidding and hazing, but if the seriousness of the policy is explained at the outset and the policy is signed by team or group members, it might prevent another incident like the one involving the Ooltewah students.

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