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By NBC News staff and wire reports
LOS ANGELES -- Four Los Angeles-area high school students have been arrested in an investigation into complaints that varsity soccer players sexually abused younger team members in hazing rituals that victims said were conducted with the complicity of a coach.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department opened an investigation at the request of the school district after a parent of one boy who claimed to have been harassed by teammates came forward to lodge a complaint, school officials said.
In a statement on the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District's website, its superintendent Barbara Nakaoka said she shared people's "shock and sadness."
"Our school community faces the tragic allegation that student-to-student hazing was taking place between members of a sports team at La Puente High School. The allegations are deeply concerning, and they have understandably caused tremendous anxiety and anger among students and parents," she said.
Comparisons to Penn State 'unfounded'
Nakaoka said the media had been "aggressively covering the story" amid comparisons with events at Penn State, where assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky abused boys both on and off campus. In June, Sandusky was convicted of 45 offenses.
"I cannot allow this comparison to go unchallenged; if I were to let these unfounded comments go unchecked, then I would be indirectly telling students that their voices are not heard," she said.
A statement issued on Monday by the sheriff's department special victims bureau said more than 70 students at La Puente High School have been interviewed about allegations of hazing, and that four were arrested and released to the custody of their parents.
"The hazing incidents have gone on for several years and may have risen to the level of a crime," sheriff's Sergeant Al Fraijo said.
"At this point, there is no information to indicate that any member of faculty or coaching staff were directly involved," he added.
But a lawyer representing the families of four boys who claim they were victimized said the hazing and assaults were carried out by team members against younger fellow players "at the behest and encouragement" of a coach.
The attorney, Brian Claypool, said the coach "lured young boys to a back room to facilitate varsity members of the team sexually assaulting the boys by attempting to sodomize them with a foreign object."
The attorney representing the four alleged hazing victims has now hired a clinical psychologist to help them cope with what they say is sexual assault, NBCLosAngeles.com reported.
"This is not hazing, this is a sexual assault. These boys when I saw them were in serious trauma. I did a suicide assessment on one of them," psychologist Michelle Golland said according to NBCLosAngeles.com, adding that the alleged victims were going through something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.
"PTSD untreated will go into serious anxiety, serious depression. All of the families involved, they all need therapy as well, because they are in this vortex of trauma," Golland said.
One of the alleged victims, named as "John," told the Dr. Drew Show on cable channel HLN that six or seven people had thrown him to the floor and were "beating on me" in one incident.
The Los Angeles Times and other media reported on Tuesday that a coach, who has not been identified, has been placed on administrative leave.
Claypool also said the hazing occurred next to a coach's office, and that "the school knew or should have known that these horrific acts were being carried out on school grounds."
He accused school officials of "attempting to cover up the ongoing hazing incidents," and said he planned to file suit against the high school and the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District.
Reuters and NBC News' Ian Johnston contributed to this report.
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