If you think hazing is just harmless fun that builds character and healthy traditions, think again

By Kim Goss
Published: Spring 2002
In the premiere episode of the television series Smallville, the super powers of the young Clark Kent were sapped by kryptonite. In Clark's weakened state, bullies from the high school football team were able to strip him down to his shorts, tie him to a wooden cross and paint a Smallville “S” on his chest as part of an annual hazing tradition. When Clark was finally able to break free from this makeshift crucifixion and his powers were restored, he secretly used his super strength to stack his tormentors' trucks on top of one another. Although justice prevailed in Smallville that day, when it comes to hazing in the real world there is not always a happy ending. Much of the time with hazing the end result is that someone gets hurt - if not physically then psychologically - and occasionally, people even die.

Hazing by the Numbers

In a published study conducted by Alfred University in New York, hazing was defined as “any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person's willingness to participate.” For example, at a suburban high school in San Antonio, Texas, 19 high school students were suspended when it was discovered that they had pelted new cheerleaders with eggs and had asked them to mimic sexual acts with male athletes. In an even more horrific example, an
18-year-old female firefighter consumed a fifth of alcohol as part of initiation rites and died the following day.
I became particularly interested in the consequences of hazing when I had lunch last summer with a former athlete of mine, now a successful professional with a graduate degree. She told me that even though she has many good memories from high school, the emotional trauma caused from the hazing rituals she endured from joining a sorority in high school 15 years ago still affects her to this day. The impact that hazing has had on her peace of mind became clear to me as she described her hazing experience:
“The hazing lasted six weeks, but it seemed like six months. Every day we had to do something degrading at school, such as singing stupid songs in the hallways or wearing ragged clothes. Wednesdays were the worst. On those days we were taken to a park “to prove our worthiness” in front of a crowd of strangers and our fellow classmates. Typically we were forced to drink glasses of mineral oil and raw eggs until we vomited on ourselves, after which the senior sorority girls would pour trash and foul-smelling concoctions over our heads. Sick, smelly and always in tears, we then had to perform skits as the sorority screamed at us for being so pathetic.”
Although hazing is commonly associated with high school and college students, the study by Alfred University found that 25 percent of those who admitted to being hazed said that they had first been hazed before the age of 13. At the high school level, the study found that 48 percent of students who belonged to groups had been subjected to hazing activities, and that 30 percent reported that they had participated in initiation rituals that could be considered illegal. Further, the report found that substance abuse, especially alcohol, was involved in 23 percent of the high school hazing activities and 51 percent of the college hazing activities.
Public outrage has resulted in the formation of several anti-hazing organizations and in anti-hazing legislation (42 states now have anti-hazing laws). In fact, the Supreme Court ruled in May 1999 (Davis vs Monroe County Board of Education) that if a school district fails to prevent harassment among students and that district is receiving federal funding, the district could be liable for monetary damages.

Beyond the Classroom

Hazing has roots that can be traced back to schools in ancient Greece. Even as late as the 1900s, it was a commonly held belief among college presidents that hazing was a way for new students to learn respect for their school and to honor their elders. Today's hazing rituals are seen not just in colleges and high schools, but also in professional sports, the military and many occupations. It could even be argued that reality television shows such as Survivor, Boot Camp and Fear Factor include hazing activities, as contestants are required to participate in unpleasant activities to continue playing the game and be eligible to receive cash prizes.
In High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs, author Hank Nuwer says one reason hazing continues to survive is that those who were once victims of such degrading activities convince themselves that hazing others will somehow restore their lost dignity. To believe otherwise would result in the sobering realization that what they had themselves suffered as part of their initiation was pointless and wrong.
Nuwer says another reason hazing endures is that hazing crimes are seldom reported, since to do so would further humiliate the victims and prevent them from joining the group. Because hazing can be an embarrassment to any educational institution, school administrators might be reluctant to reveal the details of hazing activities and might report physical harm that occurs simply as accidents. Further, when hazing is reported it is common for the accused to shift the blame to the victim by pointing out that the victim was a willing participant. However, because both the degree and type of hazing are often unpredictable, hazing laws contend that such consent is meaningless.
In the BFS Be An Eleven program, athletes are encouraged and shown how to make the right choices, and not to simply do things because it's what is popular. Hazing, however, may cause a person to make irrational decisions for fear of being seen as abnormal. In effect, says Nuwer, members of these groups “tend to look at themselves through the eyes of peers to judge themselves “winners” or “losers.”” Nuwer even speculates that this desire to fit into the group will make members of groups less likely to intervene in a crisis situation, since taking action or simply voicing an objection would be considered counter to the will of the group.
What Would an Eleven Do?

To win the war against hazing, coaches and parents must have a battle plan, and it must be implemented starting in elementary school. Nuwer provides contact information on organizations that tackle hazing, and in his book offers numerous practical suggestions for parents, coaches, school administrators, as well as the victims and potential victims of hazing. In addition to encouraging victims of hazing to seek counseling, below are a few of Nuwer’s practical suggestions on how hazing can be prevented.
Hazing is a serious problem with potentially dangerous consequences, but if we all work together as a team, hazing does not have to be a fact of life. You can’t run faster than a speeding locomotive or leap tall buildings in a single bound, but you can certainly become strong enough to stand up and say no to hazing!

Nuwer’s practical suggestions on how hazing can be prevented.

· Help establish welcome programs for first-year and transfer students.

· Reconsider all traditions in all school groups.

· Urge schools to take precautions to prevent hazing on team buses, in locker rooms and during trips.

· Get involved in the prevention of gangs.

· Complain to sports channels and the news media about athletic hazing.

Baseball superstar Barry Bonds refused to join a fraternity when he attended Arizona State University because he did not want to participate in hazing. In 1994, Bonds played the role of a New York senator who fought to pass tough state laws to prevent hazing in the television movie Moment of Truth: Broken Pledges. Photo credit: The Sporting Image

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