Hazing in College — Awareness and Prevention

| Bobby Rich

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Hazing is an unfortunate reality, but one that exists on many college campuses. Though hazing comes in many forms, the one constant is the abusive nature of this behavior. Despite numerous high profile hazing cases resulting in the deaths of young students, and despite laws explicitly prohibiting hazing, the issue persists in colleges and universities everywhere. Many students, parents, and authorities remain uninformed on the severity and permeation of this behavior. Here, we’ll illuminate the issue of hazing, consider its impact on students, and discuss how we as a society can work to confront the problem.

What is Hazing?

Though we tend to think of hazing as a pretty specific set of behaviors, it can actually come in many forms. And because of the complicity and silence that often shroud hazing, it can be difficult to define. However it is defined, hazing is always wrong, is never beneficial, and can in no way be qualified as acceptable behavior. It should always be recognized as a form of abuse.

HazingPrevention.Org provides a strong, general definition of hazing:

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.

Hazing is often presented as a form of initiation rite, directed and executed by individuals in a group as a way of weeding out others who they feel belong or do not. Because of this, hazing is dependent on a power differential between senior members or authority figures in a group and junior members or potential initiates. That power differential gives way to abuse, exploitation, and manipulation. This coercive behavior should be considered abusive regardless of consent to participate. This is an important distinction to make regarding hazing. Just because an initiate is willing to endure this abuse does not mean it is acceptable. Consent can be coerced through power imbalance. This does not release any party from responsibility.

Because of this initiation aspect, hazing can be differentiated from bullying. Though related in many ways, and dependent on power differentials, hazing fundamentally focuses on inclusion, while bullying fundamentally focuses on exclusion. Bullying is performed on the basis that the bully or bullies want to exclude an individual or group from engaging in something, and aim to make the victim feel marginalized. Hazing, on the other hand, is performed on the basis that the hazers are trying to draw the hazees into the group. Hazing is often supported by the argument that it builds solidarity among a team, when in reality it enforces conformity and submission. In both cases, active resistance can sometimes result in retribution and escalation, which encourages silence on the part of the victims, and complicity on the part of witnesses.

[Learn more about bullying and prevention here.]

Hazing is most commonly associated with Greek organizations on college campuses, but it occurs in many other places as well, as it is tied to clubs and organizations that maintain largely exclusive in-groups. In colleges and even grade schools, hazing occurs on sports teams, in clubs, and anywhere in which members may be screened for entry and initiation. It also occurs outside of schools, in professional organizations, businesses, agencies, and even groups like the military and the police force. While our focus on this site is on hazing on college campuses, its prevalence outside of colleges should not be ignored.

Due to the broad definition of hazing outlined above, the behaviors that constitute hazing come in a wide variety of forms, some of which are more extreme and obvious than others. Hazing can involve any of the following behaviors, and often includes a combination of them:

  • Forced activities for initiates to prove worth
  • Forced alcohol or drug consumption
  • Physical abuse, such as paddling or exhaustion trials
  • Psychological abuse
  • Gaslighting of victims
  • Sexual abuse
  • Coercion of illegal activity
  • Branding, tattooing, or scarification
  • Public humiliation
  • Forced servitude and submission
  • Intentional poisoning
  • Isolation
  • Special requirements of new members
  • Cleaning or consuming human waste

[Click here to learn more about the college Greek system and find out if you should join a sorority or fraternity.

How Pervasive is Hazing?

Even as mainstream awareness of the dangers of hazing grows, only the most extreme 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. Beyond these alarming headlines, hazing is not often talked about in media, which could lead many to assume it is a rare occurrence. The reality is that hazing is an all-too-common occurrence on college campuses across the country.

The impact of hazing is not just anecdotal; it is systemic and cultural. Elizabeth Allan, Ph.D. and Mary Madden, Ph.D., offer a few key findings from their 2008 study, Hazing in View: College Students at Risk [PDF]:

  • 55% of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations are hazed.
  • 25% of coaches or organization advisors were aware of the group’s hazing activities.
  • 25% of the hazing incidents occurred on-campus in a public space.
  • 25% of hazing experiences have alumni present.
  • 26% of hazing victims talk about their experience with family.
  • 48% of hazing victims talk about their experience with peers.
  • More than 51% involve publicly posted pictures of the hazing incident.
  • In 95% of the hazing cases, the victim did not report the event to campus officials.
  • 69% of students who belonged to a student organization reported they were aware of hazing activities occurring in other student organizations as well.
  • 47% of students come to college having experienced hazing in some form.
  • 90% percent of students who have experienced hazing behavior in college do not consider themselves to have been hazed.

All of the above suggests hazing is a very pervasive issue that often goes unreported, that it is normalized by complicity, and witnessed by many more students than just hazing victims alone. In addition, reports anti-hazing spokesman Hank Nuwer, there has been a steady stream of hazing-related fatalities in the US since 1838, with at least one hazing death each year since 1969. This fact is alarming enough,but it’s also important to remember that, much more commonly, the victims of hazing live with physical and emotional trauma from their experience. It is also important to remember that family, alumni, and authority figures can be complicit in hazing by gaslighting victims, coercing silence, and ignoring or even participating in hazing activities. Because of this higher-level involvement, the pervasiveness of hazing is a systemic issue. Indeed, this behavior is often protected by individuals in positions of real authority beyond the borders of a chosen in-group.

How do we Prevent Hazing?

Anti-hazing legislation has emerged to combat the issue in some contexts. With the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming, 44 states in the US have laws explicitly identifying hazing as an illegal activity. Hazing also violates codes of conduct at most every college and university. Regulations and enforcement have been improving since at least the 1990s. Moreover, numerous activities associated with hazing, including theft, assault, coercion, trespassing, and sexual assault are illegal at both the state and federal level.

Unfortunately, even with laws in place, hazing is difficult to accurately track and police, due to a variety of factors, including a lack of reporting, social complicity (among groups and witnesses), and complicity on the part of authority figures. The fact that six states currently lack hazing laws, and that there are no federal laws explicitly prohibiting hazing, suggests that the issue is still not taken as seriously as it should be.

Hazing is ingrained in numerous areas of culture, especially college campus life. It is even seen by some circles as a sacred and cherished tradition. Its cultural status as tradition does not, however, mitigate the tragedy it has caused. Hazing is fundamentally harmful, traumatic, dangerous, and in some instances, fatal. Though the practice is morally archaic, it is often perpetuated as a cultural norm. This means that hazing prevention requires more than just the passage of anti-hazing laws. It requires a shift in how we as a society discuss and look at the issue.

While it is no individual’s burden to put an end to hazing once and for all, social shifts must start with the individual. First and foremost, protect yourself. If a situation feels uncomfortable to you, get out. If you observe some form of hazing, report it using 911 for immediate, present dangers (such as physical assault, sexual assault, or unconciousness), and campus reporting services, campus security, or the Anti-Hazing Hotline for non-immediate dangers. Know the policies of your college and organization, and the laws of your state.

Moreover, it is important to actively work against hazing and look out for the safety of others. The University of Rochester provides a helpful list of suggestions for actions you can take to make a difference. Among them, you can create an open, safe dialogue for group members to discuss the activities they are engaged in. You can, and should, develop anti-hazing policies within your organization, and you can work with outside organizations to take a unified stance against hazing.

Anti-Hazing Resources

As the issue of hazing has gained mainstream awareness, numerous anti-hazing resources and groups have emerged to assist students and schools in stamping out the problem:

  • Anti-Hazing Hotline — Operated by Fraternal Law Partners, the Anti-Hazing Hotline receives anonymous tips 24 hours a day to combat hazing practices on college campuses across the country.
  • HazingPrevention.Org — Founded in 2007, HazingPrevention.org is a national non-profit organization dedicated to stopping hazing. The organization provides numerous tools and resources, as well as educational programs, events, and opportunities for involvement.
  • StopHazing — Dating back to 1992, StopHazing is a nonprofit organization involved in anti-hazing research, awareness, and legislation. It offers numerous anti-hazing resources, including the 2008 national hazing study, Hazing in View: College Students at Risk.
  • Ways to Stop Hazing — Provided by the University of Rochester, this is a straightforward list of tactics and approaches to stop hazing before it starts, for anyone involved in a group in which hazing could occur.

Hazing is just one of many student health issues with real-world, and even lifelong, implications for college students. Check out our Focus on Student Health to learn about other key health issues impacting life on-campus and in online college.

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