ST. PAUL, MINN. — After enrolling in a new high school, Nikki Cosentino looked forward to the traditional rite of passage that would welcome her into a new circle of friends - "sophomore kidnap."
Then the cheerleader in Roseville, Minn., found herself crying, face pressed to the ground, as 100 drunken seniors taunted her. The torments she and other students endured that night - having seniors pour vinegar into their eyes, smear them with green hair dye and dog food, and break bottles over their heads - were reminiscent of serious college hazing incidents, not high school pranks.
"We were all crying," Nikki recalls. "It was like one of those nightmares, ... you try to scream but you can't."
Although no reliable statistics exist, media reports of high school hazing in the US have surged since 1990, experts say.
State lawmakers in Minnesota, alarmed by a rash of high school hazing incidents in their state, are considering a bill that would make it easier for hazing victims to sue their tormentors. The bill is the first in the country to arise from concerns about high school hazing incidents, experts say. If passed, it would apply to both high school and college students.
College hazing often involves alcohol and physical endurance. In high school, the most graphic cases emphasize "things which gross them out," says Hank Nuwer, visiting associate professor at the University of Richmond and author of "Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing."
"At this particular age, loyalty to the group and tradition take precedence over moral qualms," Mr. Nuwer says. "Any revulsion and reservations they might feel are secondary.... When there's alcohol, inhibitions get lifted and that behavior escalates for the next group to top...."
But the motivation for high school hazing may go even deeper. "We don't have a lot of rites of passage and traditions anymore," says Nuwer.
Nikki's mother fondly remembers sophomore kidnap in her day, when the students were taken to breakfast in pajamas and hair curlers. "It was camaraderie," says Mary Cosentino. "It was fun. It had nothing to do with violence."
But Nuwer says, "A lot of traditions in high school have been eliminated as patriarchal or old fashioned. It's almost as if students are searching for replacement rites or rituals and they've chosen an unfortunate one."
Younger high-schoolers may be emotionally vulnerable to such treatment, says Eileen Stevens, an anti-hazing activist whose son died in a 1978 fraternity pledge episode. And they may be afraid to protest because of peer pressure and vows of secrecy.
"In some cases, [high school incidents] have been very shocking," Ms. Stevens says. "In some instances, they're copying the things they hear about from older brothers and sisters in college...."
Beginning in the early 1980s, several hazing-related deaths on college campuses prompted many states to pass anti-hazing measures. Thirty-eight states now have such laws. In California, people convicted of misdemeanor hazing face up to $5,000 in fines, a year in prison, and loss of scholarships. Texas law punishes students for failing to report hazing and, in cases of death, hazers face two years in prison and up to $10,000 in fines.
But high schools drew scant attention when those laws were passed. In Minnesota, the legislation was prompted by a series of serious but not fatal incidents at the high school level.
"Most other states have introduced these bills after something horrendous happened," says state Rep. Mindy Greiling (Democratic-Farmer-Labor party), author of the anti-hazing bill. "We're just trying to head this off at the pass."
The Minnesota bill stops short of making hazing a crime; focusing instead on civil penalties. Also, it recognizes only physical harm, not emotional trauma.
Meanwhile, Nikki Cosentino transferred to another school after classmates harassed her for blowing the whistle on the sophomore kidnap. "I hope they make [the bill] a law so it doesn't have to happen to anybody else...." she says.