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editorial

Ghastly rape charges also raise questions on hazing

If three Somerville High juniors indeed committed sexual assault at a sports camp in Western Massachusetts, Berkshire County prosecutors are right to treat the incident as an act of depravity — and not merely as a hazing ritual gone too far. At a school-organized retreat for several teams at Camp Lenox in Otis recently, three juniors on the soccer team entered a freshman cabin and attacked three players, according to authorities. Two victims managed to fight off the intruders. But one victim was raped with a broomstick, and was later observed crying and bleeding in a bathroom, prosecutors say. And the perpetrators reportedly tried to keep other students who witnessed the incident from telling anyone about it.

In response, the DA’s office has moved aggressively, charging the 17-year-old suspect with aggravated rape of a child under 16, assault with intent to rape, assault and battery, and witness intimidation; the two 16-year-old suspects face similar charges in juvenile court. All three defendants deserve a fair chance to fight the charges against them, and any punishments they receive should bear at least some proportion to their culpability for the incident. (The 17-year-old, charged as an adult by virtue of his age, likely faces a much stiffer sentence than the 16-year-old defendants, even though authorities believe one of the latter instigated the rape).

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Still, the Somerville school officials who reported the incident and the Berkshire District Attorney’s office are right in their basic assumption that, whatever the circumstances of this incident, the kind of humiliating violence that the rape victim reportedly suffered is a serious crime. Sensibly enough, Somerville officials are also looking at whether the district’s policies for overnight field trips require sufficient supervision to guarantee students’ security.

Yet these steps alone aren’t a sufficient response to this case. Somerville officials must also assess whether the teams at the Camp Lenox retreat have a history of hazing that somehow escaped the school system’s notice.

Tony Pierantozzi, superintendent of Somerville public schools, told the Globe that the incident is contrary to the culture of the system, which was quick to adopt anti-bullying policies. Student athletes, he noted, must sign an anti-hazing pledge every year. But it’s vital to understand how closely that policy is being followed.

It’s certainly conceivable that three juniors spontaneously decided to victimize younger players the moment their chaperones’ eyes were turned — while other students were looking on and while adults were just “yards, if not feet, away,” in the words of Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who was a volunteer football coach at the retreat. Yet one can imagine the sadistic acts that prosecutors describe arising more easily when some pattern of hazing has previously been established.

Juvenile-justice advocates often point out that immature brains behave in impulsive ways, and at times spiral grotesquely out of control. It’s vital that adults make it clear to students, and students to each other, that hazing and bullying even in their mildest forms aren’t remotely acceptable.

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