In Part One of our Campus Safety Check series, Property Crimes and Gun Violence, we discussed the strategies that you can take to protect against threats to your property and person. In Part Two, Sexual Assault and Rape Culture, we discussed the very real threat of sexual assault even on the safest campuses. In both installments of this series, we emphasized the importance of protecting yourself from dangers by traveling in groups. Now we turn our attention to a different sort of danger, one in which the group is actually the problem: hazing.
What is hazing?
Hazing is common terminology, typically listed along with bullying, physical assault, and peer pressure. It’s not a terribly complicated concept, but hazing is a bit difficult to define because it is broadly define, it’s definition is often disputed, and it blurs the notion of “consent.”
Hazing includes a range of unhealthy behaviors located somewhere between team-building and criminal assault. There is disagreement over what qualifies as hazing, particularly because its victims are often exposed to hazing voluntarily. The same level of “hazing” may strike one student as bullying while another student may enjoy it as good clean ribbing and roughhousing.
For example, is blindfolding always hazing? What about games of truth-or-dare? What about requiring matching outfits for fraternity or sorority pledges? These tactics can be used in degrading ways, and could qualify under a liberal definition of hazing, but they might not be actual hazing if used in relatively innocent and non-threatening ways.
For our purposes, the following definition from HazingPrevention.org should suffice:
Hazing is any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule and risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.
HazingPrevention.org also adds a few distinctions which might not be universal but are still common to hazing. Hazing often involves a “[p]ower differential between those in a group and those who want to join a group,” or a power differential “between senior and junior members of a group.” It is also tied into “[i]ntentional initiation rite[s], practice or ‘tradition.’” And, because the environment and culture can have a pressurized coercive effect on the victims, “[w]illingness to participate does not absolve responsibility for either party.”
How Pervasive is Hazing?
Hazing is explicitly illegal in most states, and extreme forms are illegal in every state. Hazing also violates codes of conduct at most every college and university. Regulations and enforcement have been improving since at least the 1990s.
Unfortunately, hazing is difficult to police. And only the most obvious cases get significant media attention such as the hazing death of nineteen-year old Timothy Piazza, a pledge at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State, or the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion of Florida A&M university.
The impact of hazing is not just anecdotal though. It is systemic and cultural. Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden offer a few key findings from their 2008 study, Hazing in View: College Students at Risk — Initial Findings from the National Study of Student Hazing:
- Fifty-five percent of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations are hazed
- Twenty-five percent of coaches or organization advisors were aware of the group’s hazing behaviors
- Twenty-five percent of the hazing incidents occurred on-campus in a public space
- Twenty-five percent of hazing experiences have alumni present
- Twenty-six percent of hazing victims talk about their experience with family
- Forty-eight percent of hazing victims talk about their experience with peers
- More than fifty-one percent involve publicly posted pictures of the hazing incident
- Ninety-five percent of the hazing cases, the victim did not report the event to campus officials
- Sixty-nine percent of students who belonged to a student activity reported they were aware of hazing activities occurring in student organizations other than their own
- Forty-seven percent of students come to college having experienced hazing
- Ninety percent of students who have experienced hazing behavior in college do not consider themselves to have been hazed
Official reports suggest hazing is pervasive. Around fifty-five percent of college students [PDF] involved in a team, club, or organization have been hazed in some form or another. Anti-hazing spokesman Hank Nuwer reports that there has been a steady stream of hazing deaths since 1838 with at least one hazing death each year in the US since 1969.
Do Students Want Hazing?
No one, of course, celebrates hazing. No one campaigns in favor of hazing by declaring its merit before school boards, or defending it at trustee dinners. Hazing is obviously a bad thing, a danger to be avoided. But when we dig under the surface, we find that hazing is difficult to evaluate. It’s clearly a kind of bullying, it endangers students, and it detracts from campus safety. But it’s still hard to judge the relative risk and benefit of hazing because it involves initiation rites, and people are willing to endure all sorts of weird, wild, and dangerous escapades for the sake of social inclusion. Hazing illustrates how far students will go to make friends.
Another reason hazing is difficult to evaluate is because of underreporting. Hazing can be hard to identify in some cases, and it has mixed benefits as reported by the victims. It carries real dangers, yet many hazing victims report overall positive results such as feelings of inclusion, accomplishment, empowerment, and better performance at school.
These unique circumstances leave hazing in a precarious place. And it puts us in a quandary. How do we evaluate the dangers of hazing when most students don’t want a perfectly safe campus? There is no shortage of rationalizations among students who consider their hazing experience more beneficial than harmful, or who simply don’t think it was too bad. At least one source suggests that ninety percent of students who have experienced hazing behavior in college do not consider themselves to have been hazed. (Allan & Madden, pg. 2)
Realistically, students have already collectively endorsed (low-grade) hazing by their general silence regarding hazing activities in their respective groups. Campus officials simply cannot police hazing effectively unless and until students take responsibility and start reporting infractions. Historically, students are compliant when it comes to hazing, prone to cooperation with their tormentors in the interests of inclusion, even if this compliance leads to negligent and dangerous behavior.
Students are liable to excuse and tolerate a great deal of hazing because they sense the immense value of social inclusion. We’ve also seen in both literature and real-world group psychology how hazing scenarios can quickly escalate into dangerous social experiments in malice, sadism, and criminal behavior. We can easily see hazing dynamics in the Lord of the Flies the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” or the “Milgram (Electro-shock) Experiments.” All of these are sobering insights into group dynamics gone terribly wrong.
Nevertheless, a great deal of hazing is perceived merely as adolescents acting out their immaturity in ways that are puerile but amusing, possibly even endearing — until someone gets hurt. Then the curtain pulls back, the lights turn on, and we see how students have played a perilous game of “what else can I get away with?” Extreme forms of hazing are already prohibited on federal, state, and civil grounds; it’s still illegal to assault people, kidnap them, tie them to a tree in a public park, force people to drink alcohol or have sex against their will, and so on. Most schools already have anti-hazing rules in place, and they take measures to actively police their campuses. But, the true onus of preventing hazing lies elsewhere.
How do we prevent hazing?
The practical question remains: how do we prevent hazing? If students have mixed feelings about most of the hazing on campus, we are left to wonder what the campus authorities can do.
Campus authorities do have some power when it comes to hazing. School officials can expel students, disband clubs, or revoke charters if they are caught hazing. They can suspend group meetings on campus. They can also wield the almighty power of the purse, halting university funds for the group. When hazing occurs in a team setting, coaches can take swift action by “benching” the perpetrator, making them run laps, or cutting them from the team. It is not uncommon for a school to suspend or disband a group that is found guilty of hazing.
Campus authorities can also set up anonymous tip lines, have emergency phones on campus, and provide security escorts if any student feels unsafe walking alone. These common-sense measures help schools protect against a number of different risks, including some public forms of hazing. And, of course, college officials carry a heavy responsibility to establish a social climate that rejects hazing and asks if this is the kind of school that prosecutes bullies or one that excuses and ignores them? Unfortunately, some schools have looked the other way or tried to suppress the truth to protect their reputations.
Nevertheless, the onus for preventing hazing doesn’t fall entirely on campus officials. Campuses and college cities already have rules on the books for prosecuting hazing incidents. That hasn’t halted hazing, though, because students themselves remain complicit in hazing culture.
Ultimately, individual students must empower their campus authorities by reporting violations and standing up against them. As a student, you need to speak up, whether you’re a victim, a bystander, or a would-be perpetrator. Make your voice heard and let others know that you won’t tolerate hazing on your campus.
Only intervention at the student level can change the culture.
The Campus Safety Check Series
Campus Safety Check, Part 1: Property Crimes and Gun Violence
Campus Safety Check, Part 2: Sexual Assault and Rape Culture
Campus Safety Check, Part 3: Hazing and Bullying