Was the alleged 'rape game' at ND school hazing or bullying?

COLFAX, N.D. - The words "hazing" and "bullying" have been used a lot to describe what's come to be known as the "rape game" allegedly played by teenage boys in Richland 44 School District, and such labels have shaped perceptions about what exact...
A crowd gathered Feb. 13 for a Richland 44 School Board meeting in Colfax, N.D. WDAY-TV photo

COLFAX, N.D. - The words "hazing" and "bullying" have been used a lot to describe what's come to be known as the "rape game" allegedly played by teenage boys in Richland 44 School District, and such labels have shaped perceptions about what exactly happened.

But investigators at Langevin Lentz, a Minneapolis law firm hired by the district, never used those words to describe the incidents, which they have labeled simply as "incidents."

The words were only used to describe district policies that could have been applied but were not.

Langevin Lentz's report, released by the district on April 6 and recently getting the attention of national news media, constitutes most of the public information available so far about the incidents, but it doesn't offer a great deal of detail. Investigators didn't speak to the students involved at the request of the district and law enforcement because of the criminal investigation involving minors.

What the report describes are a series of incidents, some called the "rape game," going back to at least the 2015-2016 school year that mostly involve students trying to stick their fingers in or up other student's "butts." What were the motivations of those involved? Did the incidents involve the same victims over and over? The report does not address that.

Labels such as bullying and hazing have specific definitions and legal consequences. They're also perceived differently by the public than, say, roughhousing or pranks that veered across the line into abuse. Many school officials interviewed by Langevin Lentz thought all they had on their hands was "horseplay" in the locker rooms.

"We will be taking positive steps to ensure that these things do not happen in the future," School Board President Lisa Amundson said in an email. "Right now, we are only in the beginning stages of that process because of pressing hiring needs, etc."

Defining terms

Hazing and bullying are sometimes difficult to tell apart. Many teachers and coaches interviewed by Langevin Lentz said they knew the district has policies against each, but investigators were under the impression they couldn't agree on the meaning of those terms.

Those who study bullying define it as a situation in which a person or persons intentionally abuse those weaker than themselves repeatedly over an extended period of time. Hazing is defined as an initiation ritual required to join a group of some kind where the victim volunteers or is pressured to volunteer to be abused in order to be a member.

That is, the abuse can be the same, but the motivations of the participants are different.

"Hazing occurs in the process of inclusion whereas bullying is often about exclusion," said Elizabeth Allan, higher education professor at the University of Maine and an expert on hazing.

In hazing, the abuser seeks to test the victim to see if he or she may be included in the group. In bullying, the abuser seeks to constantly demonstrate dominance over the victim.

None of the incidents described in the Langevin Lentz report suggest any kind of initiation, though that doesn't mean there weren't any. The Richland County Sheriff's Department, which interviewed students, recommended five juveniles involved be prosecuted for misdemeanor hazing as well as misdemeanor sexual assault, felonious restraint and felony terrorizing.

State's Attorney Megan Kummer would not say if that's what the juveniles actually face in juvenile court because the case involves minors.

"The hazing statute in the state of North Dakota has certain elements, and what people have to remember is when anything is charged or referred every single element has to be met," Kummer said. There are no specific statutes against bullying, she said.

The statute defines hazing similarly to how experts define it.

For Susan Swearer, professor of education psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a bullying expert, definitions are less important than the outcomes. "People can debate back and forth is this bullying, hazing or not. On the other hand, you can say if there's an unhealthy culture that's created because of this tradition then that's the more salient point."

Common acts

Though bullying and hazing occasionally pop up in news media accounts when the impacts are extreme enough, they are relatively common for students.

One in five school-age children are bullied by their peers, according to a 2015 U.S. Department of Education report. Most of the bullying is not physical but social, such as name-calling or cyberbullying. Among those bullied, 64 percent said they were made fun of, for example, compared to 24 percent who said they were pushed and shoved, and 19 percent who said they were threatened (students can report more than one kind of bullying, so totals don't add up to 100 percent).

A 2008 national survey of college students, in which Allan was the principal investigator, found that 47 percent had experienced hazing in high school. Like bullying, most of the rituals were social not physical.

The most common was a restriction on who students could socialize with, with 28 percent saying this happened to them. Compare that to 12 percent who are deprived of sleep, 12 percent who got tattoos or piercings and 12 percent who participate in drinking games, all tied as the most common forms of physical hazing.

Sex acts or acts with sexual overtones become slightly more common in college, but were among the least common of the rituals listed, according to the survey.

Bullying and hazing have similar consequences for those involved.

The U.S. Department of Education says the impacts of bullying include depression and anxiety as well as suicide. HazingPrevention.org, one of many groups trying to prevent the behavior, lists impacts such as emotional and mental instability and a feeling of losing control, as well as death from abuse.

Causes

The causes of bullying are complex, according to Swearer. There is a school of thought that argues that the transition from elementary school to middle and high schools can be confusing for students causing some to try to dominate others to establish a pecking order. But research also suggests that those who come from homes where aggression is normal might be more prone to bullying.

Hazing is even more confusing because some who are abused might not see themselves as victims, according to Allan. Some might enjoy the experience, but there may be others who feel pressured to participate and for whom the abuse causes genuine suffering.

"You have someone who's trying to gain membership into an organization dealing with people who already have membership in that organization," she said, "so there's really not a level playing field there for achieving a true consent."

Sometimes a bully-like ringleader will encourage the abuse, Allan said, but sometimes the hazing could be a tradition that everyone feels compelled to continue despite its abusive nature.

Swearer said punishing bullies through expulsion or suspension are not effective ways to stop the practice because the bullies don't really learn anything that way. "That goes back to our discussion about bullying being a relationship problem related to culture and climate. In order to change or stop it or reduce it, the culture has to change so it's not acceptable."

That is, a culture that looks the other way will only allow more bullies to emerge.

Allan also advocates for changing school culture to prevent hazing.

She said if hazing is a way to create group cohesion or maintain tradition, why not have an alternative to achieve the same goal without harming anyone. Schools can have a tradition of organizing service activities, for example, she said.

The Richland 44 School District does appear to have policies in place to discourage bullying and hazing, but it just hasn't done a good job of execution, according to the Langevin Lentz report. School officials reported not getting much training or any at all on handling those behaviors.

Asked about steps the district has taken to train staff, Amundson said in an email that it would take time. "In the coming weeks and months, the District will be addressing the need to provide education on policies and reporting procedures to all, including part-time coaches and staff."