Hazing and Bullying: A Curable Epidemic

Although bullying and hazing are not new to our schools, recent events have generated a great deal of new and sophisticated discussion regarding cause and prevention of this hateful and harmful behavior. While such behavior is always morally reprehensible, when bullying and hazing turn physical (as is often the case) there are also complex legal ramifications for all involved.

The California Constitution guarantees students the right to attend safe, secure and peaceful schools. Recently, California also passed “Seth’s Law” which is set to go into effect in July of 2012, and which is aimed at giving public schools the tools necessary to prevent and address bullying through mandatory policies, systems to discourage bullying and track incidents when they occur. Schools will be required to post anti-bullying policies, provide simple and easy complaint forms on their websites, and promptly investigate/resolve complaints. All complaints of bullying are to be taken seriously and addressed promptly under the new law. Further, the California Education Code prohibits bullying and hazing, and provides for punishment such as suspension or expulsion for those who perpetrate such acts as well as criminal punishment for acts of hazing.

Bullying can take on many forms: verbal name calling and teasing; social exclusion from peer groups or manipulation to breakup friendships by spreading rumors or otherwise; cyberbullying by using cell phones or the internet to embarrass or humiliate the targeted individual; and physical hitting, shoving, intimidating behavior. Hazing is an activity that produces mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule involving an initiation practice into a group (such as a team or a fraternity.) All experts agree that these behaviors can only be prevented through the implementation of a culture that tolerates no form of bullying or hazing in the school environment, and that the teaching of these lessons starts with parents at home.

A recent case that was aggressively and successfully pursued by Aitken Aitken Cohn demonstrates that everyone loses when hazing or bullying activities occur. The case involved the wrongful death of a college student who was “pledging” to become a member of a fraternity group. Despite knowledge of anti-hazing laws, the fraternity had a “tradition” requiring all new pledges to participate in a full contact tackle football game with the pledges playing against the existing fraternity members. The “game”, however, was nothing more than a hazing activity disguised as a sporting activity — with the pledges out-numbered 40 to 9, late hits, intentional gang tackles, and no protective equipment. Tragically, one of the pledges received a fatal head injury during the game. Aitken Aitken Cohn sued the fraternity, but it had no insurance. So Aitken Aitken Cohn sued each and every individual fraternity brother on a co-conspiracy theory of liability that made each fraternity member responsible for the consequences of their collective foreseeably harmful conduct. Each fraternity member’s parent’s homeowners insurance coverage was therefore implicated. The result was a 1.7 million dollar settlement with contribution from virtually all members of the fraternity and with involvement of all of their parents/families.

The case received significant attention from local and national media and has helped shape and direct discussion regarding prevention of future bullying and hazing tragedies. Aitken Aitken Cohn is committed to playing a continuing role in fighting against those that perpetrate harmful acts of bullying and hazing. Additionally, Aitken Aitken Cohn applauds the California legislature for its recent actions in furthering this discussion and moving our state one step closer to curing the epidemic of hateful conduct.