Poking fun at underclassmen has long been a high-school staple, but a recent rash of hazing incidents suggests the induction process may have gone from teasing to torment.
Whether it's a case of teenage girls having feces dumped on them or allegations that football players sodomized teammates at training camp, the foray into extracurricular activities has become alarmingly dangerous.
The reactions of parents and school staffers vary as widely as the acts themselves.
In New York state, Mepham High School's (search) football season was canceled this year before it even began. Three players were charged with sexually brutalizing younger teammates with a stick, pine cones and golf balls over the summer at a Pennsylvania training camp.
Todd Frenchman, whose son plays on the team, doesn't think wide-sweeping punishment is the answer.
"They made the entire team guilty by association," he said, criticizing the season's cancellation.
But Ada Greene, the mother of a student who was allegedly assaulted in a "freshman beatdown" in Staunton, Va., said she hoped the accused students in her case received stiff sentences.
In Staunton, Robert E. Lee High School's (search) annual fall hazing tradition turned violent, ending up with 13 students charged with assault and battery. Local police said the charges stem from a homecoming rally at the school, in which one student, 18 at the time of the fights, was charged as an adult.
"Something has to break the cycle," Greene said. "Maybe if they get the maximum sentence, people will think twice before doing it again, instead of just going along with what has been done before."
Headline-grabbing hazing incidents have been numerous this year, sometimes seeming to copy one another.
In May, the national spotlight shone on Glenbrook North High (search) in Northbrook, Ill., after 15 students, mostly female, were videotaped punching younger girls and dumping urine, paint and animal entrails on them. All 15 were charged with misdemeanor assault in the "powder puff" football incident.
In October, seven high school students in Port Washington, Wis., allegedly bound five freshman cheerleaders and a male student to trees with duct tape, dumped syrup and eggs on them and then left them tied up as part of a homecoming hazing, authorities said. The students were cited with disorderly conduct, which carries a $500 penalty.
One reason for the apparent abundance of hazing is that few parents take stands against it until incidents turn violent, said Rita Saucier, an anti-hazing activist.
"It was fun and games for the parents," said Saucier. "It's called 'tradition.' They really don't understand the effect that hazing can have, that it usually escalates to more dangerous activities, which we're seeing especially now in high schools all over."
Saucier's son Chad died in 1993 while pledging a fraternity at Auburn University in Alabama. After being made to drink a fifth of alcohol, he passed out, was dragged into another room and never woke up.
In response, Saucier started C.H.A.D. (Cease Hazing Activities and Deaths (search)), a hazing-awareness group, and now travels the country speaking to schools, organizations and "anyone who'll listen" about the dangers of hazing.
In her hometown of Mobile, Ala., Saucier said, there are two high-school fraternities and sororities that haze pledges.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "The adults even condone it ... it's what they call 'benign hazing.' They consider it non-threatening."
Even hazing that some consider silly or harmless, such as making freshman run outdoors in their underwear, can be the genesis for great harm, Saucier added.
"I feel that all hazing is wrong because it escalates," she said. "Then they can't put a stop to it."
The incident that left Greene's child injured is one such example. The freshman initiation at Robert E. Lee High has in years past involved pranks such as stuffing students in trash cans or lockers. This year, said Staunton Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond Robertson, male and female freshmen were attacked and punched in a school hallway.
As for the Mepham allegations, they fall at "the top end" of severity among hazing reports nationwide, said Hank Nuwer, author of multiple books about high school hazing. He estimated there have only been a half-dozen reported cases of sexual abuse of high school hazing victims over the past 20 years.
"No one has ever done a nationwide survey on sexually related hazing incidents," Nuwer said. "These cases are tough to prove ... There is a lot of secrecy."
Mepham football coach Kevin McElroy, who maintains that neither he nor his assistants knew of the allegations until five days after returning from training camp, said he recommended the cancellation of the football season after learning that most of his players knew what happened but kept quiet.
The district school board on Wednesday decided to bar McElroy and four other coaches from the athletic program next year.
As for the three alleged victims, even they initially kept their silence, but were forced to speak when one needed medical attention.
Mike Nakkula, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, said it's not surprising that some students were hesitant to come forward. Admitting involvement in anything of a sexual nature for anyone, especially teenage boys, is "both embarrassing and humiliating," he said.
Reluctance to provide information is reflected in the lack of statistics on hazing practices. The last major study on hazing was conducted in 2000 by Alfred University, which found more than 1.5 million U.S. high school students — or 48 percent of students who were members of school groups — were subjected to hazing each year. Nearly all who were hazed were subjected to humiliation, the study found.
Nuwer said he has found through his research that hazing is more violent and sexual since 1995, when he first started seeing the numbers go up.
"It's not an epidemic," he said, "but there's enough that it's troubling."
Efforts to curb the behavior have made strides in higher education, but "not at the high school level where efforts are infrequent, sporadic," Nuwer added.
All of the front-page attention has been a "wake-up call" for some administrations, Nuwer said, but education and prevention efforts "still have a ways to go. It's a grass-roots effort that is swelling."
"School administrators already are overworked, and there is a feeling of 'Oh not one more thing,'" when hazing incidents turn ugly, Nuwer said.
Canceled football seasons may upset some, but others worry about life-long scars. A friend of the families of the three alleged Mepham victims read a letter written by a mother of one of the boys during an October school-board meeting.
"My son is just as upset with the coaches as he is with the perpetrators," it read. "He now says to me, 'I will never trust anyone again. Teachers, principals or coaches, they did not come to help me. I kept thinking they were coming to help me and they never came.'"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.