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Public input is sought on the problem of hazing in Utah

Nearly all of the 12 students charged with hazing have avoided being convicted in the case involving a Utah State University student and fraternity pledge who died in November.

Four have pleaded guilty to lesser charges involving supplying alcohol to a minor, and officials are calling the investigation a success, as far as illuminating the underlying problem of underage binge drinking goes. But lawmakers are now concerned that current state law might be letting kids off too easy, or maybe not.

The Senate Education Committee is calling for public input as it investigates the problem of hazing within the state.

"Recently, we have been working with a few isolated, but extreme, reports of hazing at the high school and college levels. There is a concern about how widespread hazing may be in Utah schools," committee co-chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said in a statement released Thursday. Without naming specific incidents, Stephenson said local jurisdictions and schools are taking care of the matters and "are vigilant in preventing it."

"But if students are suffering hazing and coaches and administrators are condoning or ignoring it, we would like to know, so we can consider further statutory solutions," he said.

Current Utah law states that a person is guilty of hazing if they intentionally, knowingly or recklessly commit an act that causes another to do something that endangers another, involves brutality, forced consumption of food or substances, or imposes extreme mental stress. The law also includes cruelty to animals and pertains to acts done as a condition of continued membership in any organization. In 2008, "bullying" was added to the law, within the same parameters.

"Under any circumstances, the act of hazing is wrong and in fact, illegal," said committee co-chairman Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

Hughes worries that with practices beginning for the approaching football season, "we wish to remind students, coaches and parents that high school football, along with any high school sport, should be about competition, camaraderie and discipline, not embarrassment, indignity and assault."

Nearly two years ago, three East High School football players were accused of committing a sexual act against another boy at the school. Only one was convicted, but all three were kicked off the team and suspended from school, according to reports following the August 2007 incident.

To date, Hughes said, most school coaches have been "exemplary in ensuring that hazing is prevented through training of leaders and conscientious efforts toward unity, loyalty, teamwork, common respect for team members and opponents, and school spirit."

A national expert on hazing and author of four books on hazing, Hank Nuwer, has told Stephenson that Utah's law is inadequate and ineffectively enforced.

"In my opinion, as one who follows the national scene daily, the challenge Utah faces with regard to hazing-law reform is that defense attorneys mount challenges to the law alleging that hazing laws are too broadly defined and thus are unconstitutional," Nuwer said in a statement released Thursday. "Rather than possibly lose a conviction altogether, prosecuting attorneys tend to drop the initial hazing charges and go for easier-to-obtain convictions (serving alcohol to a minor, simple assault). Defense attorneys often agree to let their clients plead guilty to charges that have less of a lifetime stigma attached to them."

Nuwer's claim has been true in all of the most recent 15 charges in Utah that were initially filed and tried as hazing.

Share hazing information

To contact the Senate Education Committee to share information about hazing, call 801-538-1035 or leave a comment on the Senate Web site at senatesite.com/blog/.Share hazing information

To contact the Senate Education Committee to share information about hazing, call 801-538-1035 or leave a comment on the Senate Web site at senatesite.com/blog/

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com