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Hazing: A sugarcoated name for bullying and assault

A Case of Rights vs Rites

We owe it to our students to call it what it is.

Hazing is violent behavior we’d never excuse under its real name: bullying and assault.

Hazing is tacitly permitted and spans the violence continuum from taunting, extortion, and humiliation, to forced substance abuse, and physical and sexual assault. Like all bullying, hazing is an abuse of power and it negatively affects both girls and boys. The problem continues to exist because students are afraid to report it, it flies under the radar of adult scrutiny, or adults are aware of it and do nothing. Looking the other way and this veil of secrecy provide the perfect mix for uncontrolled, destructive behavior under the guise of tradition and good fun.

The traditions and myths surrounding hazing allow it to enjoy a protected place in our culture, not just in our colleges, but also in our public and private elementary and secondary schools. Status as a cultural norm, which considers negative initiation rites benign and even character building, is an imposing barrier. The norm is strengthened even more by student peer pressure and the need for acceptance into the group. The effect is students routinely give up their rights and quietly suffer humiliation and put themselves in emotional and physical danger in exchange for the chance to be included. They don’t see a way out of going along with the initiation rites if they want to be able to take part in the group activity they enjoy. We need to develop and present a new mindset and set up policies that give students a way out.

Who is in charge of eliminating hazing?

Clearly we are, just as we are responsible for maintaining academic standards and establishing a safe school climate. The adult staff is accountable to do no harm and to allow no harm be done to their students. Coaches and advisors for sports teams, music groups, social activities, and clubs have a specific responsibility to keep safe the students under their care by prohibiting and reporting hazing that occurs on or off school property and during or outside of school hours. If a college fraternity chapter can be suspended from campus for life for hazing abuses and members charged with assault, coaches and other adults who allow our young students to be abused and those students who abuse others should face comparable consequences.

The reality is most students want us to protect them from hazing. They don’t want to be victims and many don’t want to be put in the role of victimizer. They want adults to intervene, hazers disciplined, the police called, school leaders who are educated about the underground of initiation rites, and hazing replaced with positive experiences.

Adult culpability for what happens to their students is a wake up call to all elementary and secondary school staff. The Ohio State Education Department takes this responsibility seriously. Their anti-hazing code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. They have placed hazing into the realm of a crime where it belongs.

But students fear nothing will change, and some adults justify hazing, because it is difficult to break down well-established traditions. Yet we have repeatedly proven we can change school climate and school culture. Think of what used to be ingrained in the culture and policies of our schools: students segregated by race, separate schools and classrooms for students with disabilities, different courses and graduation and post graduation expectations for boys and girls, rigid academic tracking from a young age, the use of corporal punishment for discipline. From experience, we know that the most effective way to change the status quo is to get the cooperation of those involved and to take a clear and firm position together.

In the unique case of hazing, school policies, staff, students, and families need to be clear and firm that no emotional or physical violence, couched as a harmless initiation rite for acceptance into a group, regardless of tradition, will be allowed, ignored, or excused. Any anti-bullying policy that does not specifically address hazing is incomplete.

Instead we will:

  • Create a written code of conduct for extra-curricular groups that specifically prohibits any form of hazing. (See Evergreen Colorado HS anti-hazing sample policy below.)
  • Bring parents together to review the code and to enlist their support for its success.
  • Consistently publicize and enforce the anti-hazing policy.
  • Create a confidential hotline so hesitant students and parents can report hazing to the authorities.
  • And as our new mindset, offer positive, respectful adult leadership and collaborative activities to welcome new students into a group.

Sample policy

Evergreen Colorado High School Anti-Hazing Policies

Evergreen High School prohibits recognized groups, organizations, athletic teams or those that attend events or activities sponsored, organized or supported in any way by those organizations, from hazing members, prospective members, or other persons seeking to obtain benefits or services from any of these organizations.

Hazing is any action or activity, with or without consent from a person, whether conducted on or off Evergreen High School property, which is designated to or has the reasonably foreseeable effect of humiliation, denigrating, offending, physically or mentally abusing or exposing to danger a person, as a condition, directly or indirectly, of the person’s consideration for, continuation in, admission to, membership in, participation in activities of, receipt of benefits or services from, an organization or group.

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Hazing-an excuse to abuse

Do no harm and allow no harm be done.

Before the recent scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University, I had started to write a post about the widespread hazing that is occurring in middle and high schools, especially in athletics. An article about a 14 year-old high school freshman beaten with a belt by six teammates while one coach observed and the other videotaped the assault, reminded me to finish my blog about the protected and privileged world of the athlete, and the tolerance for abuse shown by students and coaches.

What is hazing and how is it different from bullying?

Hazing is violence inflicted on students because they want to belong to particular group they consider of higher status. Tradition, peer pressure, and the desire for acceptance into the elite group, motivate students to put aside their self-respect and quietly suffer humiliation and physical danger. In contrast, bullying is random violence directed at someone who belongs to a group perceived as lower status or power, or at someone who appears defenseless.

How common is hazing?

Using a random sample of high school students throughout the country, a comprehensive 2000 study by Alfred University asked students to complete a confidential questionnaire on their experiences with hazing. 48 percent of high school students admitted being hazed by school groups. The highest percentage of hazing was in sports teams, gangs, and other social groups, but, surprisingly, it existed in almost all school groups.  They defined three types of hazing behavior: humiliation, substance abuse, and dangerous hazing. In this climate of condoned aggression and physical violence sanctioned as a tradition, it is no wonder that children are abused.

What does hazing look like?

Here is a small sampling of the kind of hazing violence reported in the U.S. Students were:

  • Spat on, hogtied, held in a locker and slammed into a wall.
  • Dragged across a muddy field then made to stand against a wall while soccer teammates kicked balls at them.
  • Beaten by ten athletes until bruised.
  • Roughed up, paddled, and then forced to box each other until they bled.
  • Restrained with duct tape.
  • Beaten and covered with mud, paint, feces and garbage; five girls ended up in the hospital.
  • Sexually assaulted with foreign objects.

Students are also subjected to: forced consumption of alcohol, tattooing, piercing, head-shaving, branding, sleep deprivation, physical punishment (paddling and “red-bellying”), and kidnapping.

In the real world these behaviors would be crimes and, with a new understanding of violence, they are starting to be treated as such.

Why do we allow it to happen?

We have developed a culture of status for certain groups and of looking the other way when they misbehave. Athletes have this special status, especially in the high-profile male sports like football, soccer, wrestling, and basketball. Sports teams provide entertainment, build school pride, and bring prestige to the school. It is not uncommon for schools and society to give them special dispensation for their violent behavior and when they break rules.

The attitudes of teachers, administrators, and parents who believe participation in sports is always a character-building experience perpetuate the treatment of the athlete as a privileged class. But being idolized, feared, admired, and envied for athletic skills and brute force do not build character. They breed idolatry and a sense of entitlement that lead to abuses of power and status.

How do coaches contribute to this culture?

Complicating the issue are coaches who condone hazing, and think breaking down an athlete’s self-esteem by verbally belittling him or handing out physical punishment is an effective way to motivate him to try harder. In this way, coaches openly model aggressive, bullying behavior.  Now as states and districts enact measures to reduce bullying by athletes, coaches who bully are under more scrutiny for their own violent behavior. They are being told to tone down their drastic discipline techniques and to no longer look the other way when one of their athletes bullies another student.

The Ohio State Education Department recognized the role schools play in the continuation of the tradition of hazing. Their efforts to stop hazing at the elementary school through the college level include an inclusive definition and strong condemnation of hazing and the adults who allow it. The code warns that any adult who “recklessly” permits hazing, or who has knowledge of the hazing and takes no action to stop the behavior is liable for civil action for injury and damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering. Adult culpability for what happens to their students is wake up call to all school and college staff.

Can we change tradition?

The students in the Alfred study were perceptive when they said it would be hard to stop hazing because it would take a breakdown of tradition, and that changing a culture is difficult. But we have repeatedly proven we can change the climate and culture of a school. We know that one of the most effective ways to do this is to take the stand that no violence, including teacher bullying of students or student bullying of each other,  is ignored or tolerated.

When it comes to hazing, schools have a direct supervisory role over the groups they sponsor and the obligation to keep participants free from emotional trauma and physical harm. We can reduce hazing abuses by educating students, families, and school staff, especially school coaches and extracurricular activity supervisors, and by enacting anti-hazing policies. Safe school climate efforts should send a strong anti-hazing message and make sure there is consistent follow through when it is reported, including appropriate school and criminal consequences. Coaches should also model non-violent character-building behavior to motivate their athletes, instead of perpetuating disrespect and aggression. And we should listen to our students when they say they want us to intervene to protect them, and that they would prefer positive initiation activities to build comradery and a feeling of belonging.

We can change the tradition of hazing.

We can do it by being clear about what is and is not tolerated, and then by holding everyone accountable.