LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Four Los Angeles-area high school students have been arrested in an investigation of 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.

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.

He added: "At this point, there is no information to indicate that any member of faculty or coaching staff were directly involved."

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 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.

School district superintendent Barbara Nakaoka said in a statement that her office brought the allegations to the attention of law enforcement.

"I can confirm that the allegations were deeply disturbing and were described to involve physical violation," she said. "We do not and will not turn a blind eye to reports of harassment or hazing."

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Eric Beech)