Dedham police said Thursday that they have charged four Dedham High School students in connection with a hazing, but are providing few details.
Neither the names of the accused nor the specific charges have been disclosed by police or school officials, who cited state and federal laws that prevent them from discussing juvenile matters.
However, Twitter feeds and a local newspaper article indicate that the incident involved members of the football team and occurred Sept. 20.
Both the coach and the school’s athletic director declined to comment about the issue other than to say that something happened. Football games and practices were continuing as planned.
While the exact charges are not known, Massachusetts hazing laws include a criminal penalty of up to $3,000 or a year in prison, and the Dedham High student handbook states that students may be suspended from one to 10 days. In a statement Wednesday, Superintendent June Doe said that in this instance, students may be expelled.
“We will enforce these policies based upon the evidence and to the extent allowed by our policies and the laws,” Doe’s statement said. “I can assure you that we utilize all the avenues available to us to restore a sense of safety and protection to our students and the confidence of the community in its high school.”
The district must also report the incident to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which came under fire in January 2011 after an audit showed the state had failed to monitor districts’ compliance with the reporting requirement.
Tracy Maxwell, executive director of the national group HazingPrevention.org, said that in these types of instances, it is common for the school and police to shut down and not release details because for many towns, such occurrences are rare.
She added that athletes, like those reportedly involved in the Dedham incident, are the most likely demographic of students to be involved in hazing, regardless of whether a coach is with the team at all times.
Maxwell cited a recent study that found that 80 percent of athletes have been hazed, either physically, emotionally, or psychologically, at some point.
What is important now is how the school and the community at large respond, said Maxwell, noting that this is National Hazing Prevention Week.
“The response should be that they are taking it seriously and that consequences are being taken seriously,” Maxwell said.
“The school has a commitment to the community to be really transparent about what’s happening, because that’s what sticks with the students.”
Dedham recently passed a so-called memorandum of understanding that calls for school officials, police, and parents to actively participate in the discipline of students’ behavior in and out of town during the school year.
It dictates that if a student is involved in a reportable offense such as hazing, the school notifies police and vice-versa. The principal may then sit down with the student to discuss an “intervention plan.”
Maxwell said that while she hadn’t heard of any school with that type of document, she thinks it can be beneficial at a time when hazing is rampant and students are slow to report incidents.
“Studies show that students don’t report hazing because they don’t think that anything will be done about it,” she said. “This [memorandum of understanding] sounds great, if it’s actually being carried out consistently and students know that it is serious.”
After school on Wednesday, several Dedham High students said they had spoken with members of the football team who said they didn’t think they would get in trouble for their behavior.
One described the team as being “just normal guys,” but added that administrators and coaches warn athletes at the beginning of the season that hazing, drug use, and other infractions can carry tough penalties.
Dedham police said they will continue to investigate but they did not expect any more students to be charged.