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Illicit CP - August 2004

Corpun file 14010

St Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota, 28 August 2004

6 seniors charged in June hazings

Paddlings result in misdemeanor counts

By Shannon Prather
Pioneer Press

Six Hastings High School seniors face criminal assault charges after rounding up freshman boys, driving them to a deserted field and paddling them on the last day of school in what students say is ritual hazing.

The Dakota County attorney announced Friday he had charged five boys with misdemeanor criminal assault and a sixth boy who drove a vehicle with misdemeanor aiding and abetting. Five of the six boys admitted to paddling the freshmen, prosecutors said.

According to police, one of the seniors charged and one of the freshman victims are brothers.

The suspects, all age 17, will not be suspended from school, but some will be forced to sit out athletic competitions.

Students who were on the high school campus Friday for sports practices said hazing has become a tradition that many parents condone. Several teens said they had been hazed as a welcome to high school. Boys are paddled, and girls are smeared with ketchup and mustard. This year, some girls were forced to suck on pacifiers and eat baby food, they said.

While the teens were split on whether what happened the last day of school was criminal, all seemed to agree that the freshman victims -- not the senior suspects -- would get teased when school started Wednesday.

Mike Vodinelich, a freshman football player, said his paddling last spring left a large welt the size of a softball.

"I got paddled with a boat oar," Vodinelich, 14, said. "It hurt. They hit me in the back of my legs. It left a big mark."

Vodinelich said he was hit three times and didn't enjoy the "rite of passage."

"I don't think anyone wants to be paddled," Vodinelich said.

Freshman Cody Klemke, a football player, said he shrugged off his paddling last spring and plans to carry on the tradition when he's a senior.

"It didn't really hurt. He just used one hand and said, 'Bend over,' " Klemke, 14, said. "They hit me once."

Hastings police first got wind of the hazings on June 4 -- the last day of school.

Officers stopped three seniors and discovered alcohol and homemade paddles in their vehicle. Two of the paddles were chopped-off goalie sticks with holes drilled into them. A third paddle, which prosecutors believe was only used to intimidate, was a board with four nails protruding from the paddling surface. Hastings students said they'd heard last spring that some senior boys were constructing the ultimate paddle to torture freshmen.

Police later discovered that the seniors had driven around town and ordered freshmen into the car, threatening that their hazing would be five times worse if they resisted. The freshmen suffered painful bruising on their buttocks and legs.

"Young people were, in essence, abducted off the street under threats of coercion and assaulted. That type of scenario warrants a criminal charge," said County Attorney James Backstrom, explaining why he opted to prosecute the teens.

"This type of incident is clearly bullying at its most extreme form. It needs to be stopped," Backstrom said.

Hastings police say they get a smattering of usually anonymous complaints about hazing every couple of years, and officers have confiscated paddles. The situation seemed to escalate this spring. Parents called to complain, which prompted the criminal investigation.

"The intensity this year was more than years past," said Detective Sgt. Jim Rgnonti. "They humiliated kids. They injured kids, and they went after kids they didn't really know."

The boys won't be suspended or disciplined by the school because the hazing happened off school grounds -- about 10 blocks from the campus.

"Schools get in a difficult legal situation disciplining students for actions off school grounds," said Hastings High School Principal Mike Johnson.

Five of the six suspects are athletes and will sit out part of a sports season because they signed a contract with the Minnesota State High School League. The school's football, hockey, baseball and golf teams will be affected.

Principal Johnson said he contacted the parents of all the boys involved and has made it clear that he won't tolerate violence or retaliation at school. He said one senior wrote an apology letter to a victim, and parents of the seniors are taking the matter seriously.

"It anything happens on school grounds, you will be suspended or expelled," Johnson said.

Teens are taught not to haze or bully, Johnson said. On Wednesday, freshmen were told at orientation not to participate in hazing.

"The difficult part teachers have is the kids don't think it's a big deal," Johnson said.

Girls said that while their hazing is voluntary and harmless fun, they felt that the boys were out of control this year and that media reports have made the matter worse.

"They made it sound really bad. We just take it as tradition," said 15-year-old sophomore Heidi Peterson.

"I think it went a bit too far. I think we've gotten a bad rep," said sophomore Clare Saunders, 16.

Peterson and Saunders said as freshmen they went with senior girls to a local park and were splattered with ketchup and mustard. They say the seniors gave them old T-shirts to wear and the hazing was done as an act of friendship.

They said they heard this year was more intense, with girls forced to eat baby food.

Saunders and Peterson, who play soccer and hockey, said they'd probably spare the freshmen when they're seniors.

"I don't think I'll do it. I don't want to sacrifice sports," Saunders said.

Prosecutors and the school district will host a community meeting at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Hastings High School Auditorium.

The six suspects will make their first court appearances Sept. 21.

"The penalties might include some detention. It could include community service or attendance at some form of programming that is appropriate to address this type of abusive behavior," Backstrom said.

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