Recent arrests of three Hutchinson High School football players – in a case allegedly involving a heated coat hanger used to burn four freshmen on their abdomens in a locker room — caused rumors to fly and triggered a debate over the prevalence of hazing.
One of the rumors, spread by social media, was that hazing had been occurring in the football program for a long time, said Hutchinson school superintendent Shelly Kiblinger. She said she is pleased that Hutchinson police, with their expertise, are independently investigating whether there is any truth to the rumor.
Allen Fee has three sons, including one on this year’s team, who have been promoted as freshmen to the Hutchinson Salthawks varsity team. He said none of them encountered any hazing that was in any way condoned by the coaching staff. “There was never any organized hazing whatsoever.” The coach, Randy Dreiling, would have never allowed it, he said.
Dreiling, coaching in his 17th season at Hutchinson, couldn’t be reached for comment; school staff have referred reporters to the district administration.
The arrests in Hutchinson emerged as the national community is focused on the issue of hazing in sports, centered on allegations involving Miami Dolphins players.
How prevalent is hazing in Kansas high school athletics?
Kiblinger said in an interview Friday that she thinks people “would be very remiss to think it (hazing) never happens” in the state. “If it happens at all, it’s a problem,” she said. They would also be wrong if they thought that the problem lies only with athletic programs, she said.
Walt Chappell, a former state school board member from Wichita, contends that bullying and hazing incidents are often not reported and that schools often fail to adequately follow up. The state doesn’t adequately track such incidents, Chappell said. Much of the problem is a reliance on self-reporting, he said.
“No one wants to admit that bullying takes place in schools,” although surveys of students find it is widespread, he said.
“The first responsibility of any school is to protect their children,” Chappell said. “Then we teach teach something.”
A spokeswoman for the state school board could not be reached late Friday.
Chappell said the current hazing case reminded him that there was another case in Hutchinson, around 2010, in which students tied up a 14-year-old high school student with a jump rope and left him in the weight room. The case was investigated by the Kansas Attorney General’s Office because of a conflict of interest with the District Attorney’s Office and resolved “as I understand it to the satisfaction of the parties” without any charges being filed, Reno County District Attorney Keith Schroeder said.
Some state agencies have data on bullying but apparently no readily available breakdowns on hazing. Hazing is generally defined as abusing someone as part of being a member of a social or fraternal organization.
Wichita school district spokeswoman Susan Arensman said Friday, “We have received no reports in recent years of any form of hazing.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which collects crime reports from law enforcement agencies across the state, hasn’t received a single report of a violation of the Kansas hazing law since it went into effect July 1, 2010, said KBI Deputy Director Kyle Smith. Schroeder, the Reno County prosecutor, said he would be surprised if the Hutchinson High case is the first hazing case to be charged in the state. “I think somewhere in the state someone took hazing to an extreme where charges were warranted,” Schroeder said.
Smith said there could be a number of reasons why the KBI hasn’t received even one report of hazing: Some hazing could be charged as other crimes. Some hazing could be investigated only at the school level and treated only as a disciplinary issue. Some people don’t know there is a law against hazing. And some incidents could not be reported to avoid bad publicity, he said.
Kiblinger said the coat-hanger case has been embarrassing for her district, which takes pride not only its winning athletic teams but also its outstanding debate and forensics students; its fine arts program; its science, math, technology and engineering program at the elementary school level; and its career and technical education.
The school superintendent said she is “so proud” of the freshmen in the hazing case who realized, “Hey, this happened to me, and I’m going to do the right thing” and report it. They told their parents, who told police.
Reno County prosecutors have charged two 18-year-olds, Jaiden Casanova and Kendric Hudson, in adult court: Casanova with one count of aggravated battery, a felony, and one count of hazing, a misdemeanor; Hudson with three counts of aggravated battery and one count of hazing. They have declined to comment.
The prosecutors also have charged a 16-year-old in juvenile court with one count of aggravated battery. A judge ruled last week that the 16-year-old, already on probation for two counts of aggravated battery and facing 16 burglary and theft charges, should remain in juvenile custody for the time being.
The charges against the three football players identify the four alleged victims only by initials and say they are 14 or 15 years old.
After the hazing case surfaced, the Hutchinson school district released a statement on Nov. 1 saying that before practice Oct. 31, Dreiling learned that a hazing incident might have occurred. “Dreiling did an initial investigation and then turned the matter over to HHS administrators and Hutchinson Police to investigate,” the statement said. Before Oct. 31, it said, “Coach Dreiling made two announcements during team meetings that hazing would not be tolerated in any form. This is the week when some freshmen move up to the varsity squad, and the coach made the announcements to make it clear hazing was not tolerated.”
In the interview Friday, Kiblinger said the coach issued the admonition against hazing, “as I believe he does each year,” because “he knows that the temptation could exist when they have the freshmen move up.”
Kiblinger said her understanding is that the alleged hazing occurred in a boys locker room.
The coat hanger allegedly used to burn the freshmen was heated by friction caused by flexing the wire, Schroeder has said.
Fee, the father who has had three sons in the football program, said, “Promoting this type of stuff (hazing) is the furthest thing from Coach Dreiling. Most of the kids over there would tell you that,” said Fee, himself a former Hutchinson player and coach and now CEO of the Fee Insurance Group.
Kansas law strong
The Kansas state law against hazing is K.S.A. 21-5418. In the criminal complaint filed in court against each of the two 18-year-olds, hazing is defined as “unlawfully and recklessly coercing, demanding or encouraging another person to perform, as a condition of membership in a social or fraternal organization, any act which could reasonably be expected to result in great bodily harm, disfigurement or death or which is done in a manner whereby great bodily harm, disfigurement or death could be inflicted.”
Schroeder, the district attorney, said that under the definition of the crime of hazing, there doesn’t have to be an actual injury, “just that it was done in a manner whereby it could be reasonably expected to result” in injury.
Hank Nuwer, an Indiana journalism professor who has written four books on hazing and monitors hazing incidents around the world, said the Kansas hazing law sounds “better than most,” as far as being enforceable.
The key to defining hazing in legal terms is the recklessness or risk of the action, Nuwer said. Hazing, he said, is something “that an ordinary person would consider risky or reckless or dangerous and bizarre.” And the case alleged in Hutchinson seems to fit that definition, he said.
In 1924, he said, there was an incident in Brooklyn, N.Y., in which high school students used silver nitrate to brand freshmen.
Zero tolerance from coaches
Rick Wheeler, a longtime former Kansas high school football coach and now athletic director at Wichita Heights High School, said coaches have a number of motivations not to tolerate hazing or anything close to it. He said he is a friend of Dreiling, the Hutchinson coach, and isn’t commenting on the Hutchinson investigation.
For one thing, Wheeler said, “Coaches don’t have time to have goofy rituals.” And coaches hate distractions, he said. High school coaches, in particular, take seriously their responsibility to protect their athletes, he said. “You’re seen as being the guardian for (someone’s) child while they are in your care.”
“I don’t know of any examples of any longstanding hazing situation that happens in high schools” in Kansas, Wheeler said.
Kansas high school students are continually being drilled on the idea that bullying or hazing isn’t tolerated, he said.
Kiblinger, the superintendent, said the hazing case will trigger more discussion in Hutchinson schools about bullying and hazing.
Fee, the Hutchinson football parent, said “as unfortunate as this incident is,” if people learn from it, everyone will be better off.