Orange County school leaders take aim at hazing

Members of the Orange County School Board meet to discuss a strict new anti-hazing policy for county schools. (Photo by Vikki Hankins).

ORLANDO — Orange County’s Public School board members are taking some steps toward developing a strict Anti-Hazing policy for local schools.
Schools have been debating the problem of bullying for a while now, but hazing is a different matter. Florida’s anti-hazing law was inspired by the death of 18-year-old Chad Meredith in 2001 at the University of Miami. He drowned while trying to swim across a campus lake with two Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers after a short period of intense drinking.
OCPS Board Member Judge Rick Roach said they were looking for an anti-hazing policy because “The best defense against hazing is prevention.” New this year will be OCPS highlighting the issues of hazing the very first week of school to the student.
“Because it’s drawing recent attention … it’s a priority next year,” said School Superintendant Ronald Blocker.
Along with this, the athletic department is looking at adopting extra measures to educate the students and the parents on this issue through the creation of DVDs that provide more details about hazing. The athletic department want to be sure the kids understand this issue. A national study concluded: Among high school students, close to 25 percent of students reported being hazed when joining a sports team.
At a School Board work session on rule developments, held April 21, Associate General Counsel Eileen Fernandez suggested a possible “Three-Tier Level Disciplinary Action” for students participating in hazing activities. Though the board has yet to finalize the anti-hazing policy, Fernandez also suggested the level of disciplinary action be based on the severity of the hazing.
Under the proposed system, Tier 2 would indicate the hazing did not cause bodily harm, Tier 3 indicates it did, and Tier 4 means the hazing caused “serious” bodily harm.
Fernandez said the anti-hazing policy should also be “consistent with what’s in the statute, and employees that do not report hazing activity will result in disciplinary actions.”
The school board isn’t the only local body tackling this issue. The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida, based in Maitland, has a program called “UpStander: Stand Up to Bullying,” which focuses on young people becoming UpStanders if someone starts to bully them. Hazing and bullying are similar and the program aims to ensure that children recognize both.
Presently the program focuses on 7th grade students, and is now being implemented in ten Orange County schools. It will soon be expanding to four more Orange County schools and then into some of the Osceola County schools as well.
Program Director Carol Dierksen noted that “We can’t tell them (students) to be UpStanders if we’re not giving them the tools to know how to do it.”
Included in this effort at the Holocaust Center is a speaking program by John Halligan, whose 13-year-old son committed suicide after he was repeatedly bullied by fellow classmates. Halligan is a resident of New York, but travels to Florida to share his experience and loss with the children of OCPS so they will not become victims of bullying.
According to some reports, many colleges and universities in the U.S. have adopted anti-hazing policies — but not many high schools. The Orange County Public School Board promised to adopt an anti-hazing policy for its schools, and board members said the would take measures to carefully develop a “good definitional structure” for the term.
According to Florida law, the term hazing means “any action or situation that recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student for purposes including, but not limited to, initiation or admission into or affiliation with any organization operating under the sanction of a postsecondary institution.”
This would include “pressuring or coercing the student into violating state or federal law, any brutality of a physical nature, such as whipping, beating, branding, exposure to the elements, forced consumption of any food, liquor, drug, or other substance, or other forced physical activity that could adversely affect the physical health or safety of the student, and also includes any activity that would subject the student to extreme mental stress, such as sleep deprivation, forced exclusion from social contact, forced conduct that could result in extreme embarrassment, or other forced activity that could adversely affect the mental health or dignity of the student. Hazing does not include customary athletic events or other similar contests or competitions or any activity or conduct that furthers a legal and legitimate objective.”

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