WASHINGTON - Almost half the high school students who answered a nationwide survey said they were made to eat disgusting things, abuse alcohol or drugs or perform humiliating or illegal acts to join athletic teams, the band, even church groups, university researchers said Monday.
The researchers at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y. - known for studies of hazing among college sports teams, fraternities and sororities - said the report on high schools shows a willingness among younger people to do violence or break laws for a sense of belonging. It demonstrates as well that young people's social activities should have greater adult supervision and gives proof that no group is immune, the researchers said.
''Students may already be deeply immersed in the culture of hazing before they arrive on our campuses as freshmen,'' said Charles Edmondson, president of the private liberal arts university in western New York. ''Our challenge is much greater than anyone appreciated.''
In the survey - a two-page mail-in questionnaire sent to 11th and 12th graders this spring - students said they were most likely to be hazed by a sports team or gang. They also reported being hazed for music, art and theater clubs and church groups. Every high school organization except school newspaper and yearbook staffs had high levels of hazing.
The university-funded survey does not represent the teen population at large. Only 1,541 of those mailed surveys returned them, just over 8 percent, but the project's lead researcher, Nadine Hoover, said further studies could build on the findings.
The results nevertheless furthered a debate over whether hazing is more a time-honored rite of passage or a dangerous trend that sends increasing numbers of children to hospitals or jails.
In Winslow, Ariz., six of eight high school athletes charged in the sexual assault of about a dozen basketball and track team members accepted plea bargains in the cases; the basketball coach was also indicted, accused of knowing about some of the abuses and failing to stop them. In Trumbull, Conn., high school wrestlers were charged after a 15-year-old wrestler was sexually assaulted with the handle of a plastic knife. A high school newspaper in Avon, Ind., documented assaults on young athletes.
Schools need to do more, said Linda Murtie, an Essex, Vt., parent who campaigned against hazing after her 16-year-old daughter, Lizzie, was hazed on the school gymnastics team. The team progressed from having new members dress up in silly clothes to her daughter's being forced to eat a banana protruding from a boy's pants zipper.
''They think their harassment policies cover hazing, but they don't,'' Murtie said. ''There is such an issue about whether the kids are consenting to the hazing or not.''
Some schools - institutions including the Upper St. Clair, Pa., school district and the University of Vermont - are cracking down on hazing, creating strict policies and punishments. More than 40 states with anti-hazing laws, although researchers said the laws do not appear to limit hazing significantly.
''Initiation rites are important. Groups need to bond,'' said project leader Hoover, answering critics who she said accuse her of trying to turn the nation's students into ''wusses.'' ''How you do these initiation rites is at issue.''
Hazing was defined by researchers as any humiliating or dangerous act expected of new group members, regardless of willingness to participate. Students said they were asked mostly to do humiliating things: pushing a penny across the a school bus floor with the nose; sucking someone's toes; skinny dipping; or drinking foul mixtures such as urine, spoiled milk and eggs.
One in five respondents said they were put in harm's way or asked to break the law, which sounded an alarm to researchers who say such acts go beyond critics' contentions of innocent fun. Dangerous or illegal acts included being beaten, raped or sexually assaulted or assaulting others, destroying or vandalizing property, drinking alcohol until passing out, stealing, destroying or vandalizing property.
Schools have a bigger reason to be worried over such reported behavior, said Norman Pollard, student counseling director at Alfred University.
''When we look at recent incidents in high schools, such as those at Columbine, Paducah and Springfield,'' Pollard said, referring to multiple shootings, ''we see the dire consequences of teens feeling excluded, rejected and humiliated.''
On the Net: Alfred University: http://www.alfred.edu/news/html/hazing-study.html