Parents Beware: Hazing Poses Significant Danger to New College Students

By Hugh C. McBride

You’ve successfully shepherded your child through 18 years of growth and development, 12 years of education and nine months of graduation-related stress. But the acceptance letter arrived, the high school cap and gown were worn with pride, and you’re now the proud parent of a college student.

Think your work is done? Think again.

Regardless of what the commencement speaker might have said (and in spite of what your child might insist) high school graduation isn’t really the start of adulthood.

Yes, turning 18 and earning a diploma are important steps on the road to independence, but the journey isn’t over quite yet. And though you should be rightly proud that your child plans to pursue a college degree, don’t be lured into a false sense of complacency about the challenges of the next few years.

From binge drinking and other forms of substance abuse to eating disorders, anxiety and depression, college campuses are rife with threats to your child’s continued physical and mental well-being. For teenagers and young adults, the college years are an important phase in the effort to discover who they really are, and who they are in the process of becoming.

Sometimes, though, the collision between the need to establish one’s individuality and the desire to fit in with one’s peers causes students to engage in activities that they know are dangerous. One such dangerous activity involves a controversial collegiate tradition that many schools are struggling to stop: hazing.

Defining the Problem

Though specific practices can vary widely from place to place and group to group, in general hazing can be defined as any type of ritualized embarrassment or abuse that is required for initiation into a club, society, gang, team or group.

From being forced to wear certain types of clothing to being subjected to beatings or other types of physical abuse, potential or new members are humiliated or hurt under the guise of “bonding” or earning their membership. A code of secrecy is often imposed upon the practice – again, often in the name of bonding – giving additional protection to the abusers while making it much less likely that those who are hazed will ever reveal what they were forced to endure.

A Dangerous Tradition

The dangers of hazing and calls for the practice to be barred have both accounted for many headlines in recent decades. But according to hazing expert Hank Nuwer, the problem of hazing on U.S. college campuses is hardy a new phenomenon – and actually predates the nation itself.

“Although hazing is mostly associated in the media with athletes and Greeks, the finger pointing in the U.S. goes back to 1657, when Harvard fined upperclassmen for freshman hazing,” Nuwer wrote in a November 1999 essay that is posted on the website StopHazing.

As is the case in other organizations where hazing has flourished (such as military units and sports teams), hazing was initially supported – or at least ignored – by those who were in a position to end the activity.

“Many early college presidents, preferring absolute order to the flourishing of individual identities, encouraged hazing,” Nuwer wrote. “They saw it as a way to teach precedence, build school loyalty and assimilate students from all economic classes.”

Centuries of Abuse

More than three and a half centuries since the first reports of hazing at Harvard, the practice remains unsettlingly prevalent. Though many colleges and universities have taken public stands against the practice – and many national fraternities and sororities have developed initiatives to end the physical and emotional abuse of new members – hazing is hardly a rare occurrence on college campuses.

Many experts have noted that hazing appears to have become more deadly in the past 50 years – a phenomenon that has been attributed to a number of possible causes, including increased use of alcohol and other drugs during hazing events.

On his website, Nuwer documents 153 deaths related to college hazing – the first occurring in 1838 and the most recent taking place in March 2009. One hundred eighteen of the hazing-related deaths on Nuwer’s website occurred since 1970, with 33 deaths during the current century.

A Widespread Phenomenon

In films and television shows, college hazing is often portrayed as a series of embarrassing or uncomfortable tasks that prospective members must complete in order to gain admittance into a fraternity, sorority or similar “secret society.” In reality, though, college hazing isn’t limited to such organizations – and the dangers are much worse than a few bruises from a paddling or a bout of indigestion as the result of swallowing a goldfish or three.

The site of two hazing-related deaths, Alfred University in New York, has researched the prevalence of the problem in U.S. universities and high schools. Among the findings featured on the school’s website are ones demonstrating the degree to which college athletes are hazed or otherwise indoctrinated:

More than 250,000 college athletes experienced some form of hazing to join a college athletic team.
One in five was subjected to unacceptable and potentially illegal hazing, including being kidnapped, beaten, or tied up and abandoned.
Another common type of hazing is being forced to commit crimes, such as destroying property or harassing others.
Half of college hazing victims were required to participate in drinking contests or other types of alcohol-related activities.
Two-thirds of those who reported being hazed were being screamed at, forced to wear embarrassing clothing or required to deprive themselves of food, sleep or personal hygiene.

Resisting the Violence

In an article on the StopHazing website, Elizabeth J. Allen notes that the effort to end hazing depends upon the willingness of concerned individuals to take the following steps:

Noticing the existence of hazing.
Interpreting hazing as a problem that needs to be fixed.
Recognizing that one has a responsibility to change the culture of hazing.
Acquiring the skills that one needs to combat hazing.
Taking the action that is necessary to end the practice of hazing.

Hazing persists, Allen writes, in an environment of denial, secrecy and fear – an atmosphere in which participants and bystanders view hazing as either a “normal” part of college, a harmless tradition or a problem that is too big to be stopped.

As you prepare your child for the challenges of college, don’t forget to discuss the prevalence of hazing on college campuses and emphasize that no one has the right to subject your child to any type of physical or emotional abuse as a precursor to joining any group or organization.

Check the website of your child’s college or university to review the school’s anti-hazing policy, and if you’re less than satisfied with what you read there, contact the school by either phone or e-mail to express your concerns and get answers to your questions.

Though it has persisted for hundreds of years, hazing is neither an essential aspect of the college experience nor a harmless rite of passage. Educate your child about the risks associated with college hazing, how to avoid being abused by other students and who to turn to if hazing or other types of abuse do occur.