Is Hazing a High School Tradition or an Illegal Activity?

Hazing found in schools today is unlike anything I remember from my youth. Today, it isn't just about harmless pranks. Hazing used to be confined to colleges, but now it occurs regularly in high school activities, clubs and athletics. Read High School History of Hazing for the alarming details. So, with that background let's look at high school hazing in depth.

Why Does Hazing Exist?

Hazing exists because parents, teachers and students permit it to exist.

That may sound very harsh but unfortunately it is true. Parents need to demand that hazing be met with zero tolerance. Teachers must not look the other way and ignore traditions. Students have to speak up and tell an adult when they see or hear of any form of hazing. It's that simple. Only YOU can end hazing. Remove hazing from the list of high school traditions. Emphasize that hazing is an illegal activity and will not be tolerated.

Learn About Hazing

Start with High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs by Hank Nuwer. Professor Nuwer examines the subject thoroughly. His book should be in every school's library.

Hazing Is Illegal

Hazing is illegal in most states. Only Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Hawaii, New Mexico and Wyoming don't have anti-hazing laws. The legal ramifications of hazing are enormous. Learn how to protect your school with a zero tolerance policy and proactive education about hazing.

Assume nothing. Even if you think your school is clean, you need to discuss the subject, lay out the ground rules and enforce them unequivocally.

Read some students' experiences with hazing on page 2. My interview with Professor Nuwer follows on pages 3-5.

From private school graduate #1:

Did you experience any hazing while you were at boarding school?

"There was some hazing associated with the sports teams. The most organized hazing, however, was the whole ring banquet thing...to get my ring I had to complete a kiss list of my senior's choosing, and as I recall there were some things we had to actually do at the ring banquet, none of which I can recall specifically.

Closest to hazing I've come, I'm afraid."

What do you think of hazing?

"I'm not sure hazing is a bad thing per se, when it is not overly degrading, vulgar, or violent. There will always be some rites of passage associated with adolescence in particular; we shouldn't kill them all off just to end the few that are out of hand."

From private school graduate #2:

Did you experience any hazing while you were at boarding school?

"Are you kidding? Did I endure hazing? New ninth and tenth grade girls at _________ had to wear yellow ribbons with black __'s in their hair for the first month of school. If you were caught by an upperclassmen without it, you were punished somehow. The new ninth and tenth grade boys had to wear black polyester ties with a yellow __ for the first month of school. They, too, would be punished if they were caught without it. Also, during the first month of school, all new ninth and tenth grade students had to be "waiters" for their respective family-style dinner tables.

If a senior asked, at any given moment, you had to do whatever they asked you to, even if you had a full tray full of dishes (for example, I had to hop around the dining hall on one foot with a tray full of dishes, and if you said no, you were in for even greater trouble)."

What do you think of hazing?

"Do you wonder now why I hated that awful place so much?"

From private school graduate #3:

"In those days, the seniors liked to take 9th graders out of their beds in the middle of the night. The seniors would wear panty hose over their heads so you couldn't see who they were. They would drag you down to the hockey rink -- which was very isolated -- and you would be covered in honey and then with feathers. It was meant to frighten, intimidate, and humiliate. The faculty did nothing to discourage this kind of mal-treatment.

To this day the practice is still called by the name we knew it -- 'rinking.'"

Hazing is Still Practised

Certainly times have changed. Most private schools have adopted policies against hazing and enforce them strictly. The best prevention for hazing is constant vigilance. Parents, teachers and students working together can stamp out the last remnants of hazing in our schools.

Hank Nuwer is the author of a book on hazing entitled High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs (ISBN 0-531-16465-9). I am grateful to him for answering my questions. If you have a question for Mr. Nuwer, please post it in the Forum for the benefit of all. - Robert Kennedy

Hazing in American SocietyHazing seems to be considered a rite of passage by American society. Why do people feel that demeaning another person somehow makes them a better person?

Hank Nuwer: I think relatively few people (granted, there are some) are so bent in the psyche that they would go after a newcomer to demean that person just to crush that teen's spirit. So from my research I'd look for self-deception in the person demeaning someone else during hazing. That we are hazing for the good of the victim is a lie hazers tell themselves that they really want to believe--even if it is exposed and found to be as ridiculous or as hurtful as it often is. If we are hazers on a sports team we say, "we're doing this to toughen you up, to make sure you belong in the trenches with us, to keep a tradition alive, and to preserve unity and our team's winning ways." Schools are not military groups like Navy Seals or Canadian Airborne, and even those groups (I think) could be equally successful without the brutal initiations that sometimes get made public. What hazing at the secondary school level does, of course, is bring everyone down to the same low level instead of bringing everyone up through positive team rituals.

I have felt for a long time that the entertainment and sports industries glorify violent behavior, even giving the impression that it is somehow the norm and quite acceptable. Do their activities contribute to hazing or is hazing strictly a local activity perpetuated by local traditions and customs?

Hank Nuwer: As someone who played quite a bit of ball and even played two minor league baseball games on a magazine assignment, I should start by saying I love sports and respect coaches. One of my baseball coaches was a lifelong mentor for me, and so I think sports often has positive effects on children and young adults. My take on the situation from years of covering it for my books, as well as my reading of authors such as Peggy Reeves Sanday and, especially, Laura Robinson is that some sports such as youth hockey not only have too much violence on the field...but off it, too. And this gets inflamed by violent parent-spectators, a minority of unfit coaches, and player-baiting fans without class. But too often, physical and psychological abuse in many forms is today connected with youth sports. That has to change. The values of the culture need to change. No more can we have low-level treatment of problems or the taking of punitive actions just to pacify the media and public.

Do I think sports is overemphasized to a dangerous degree? Yes, it is one of the problems of our current media-saturated culture. But self-awareness is a start. And we must not forget that there are people IN athletics who won't tolerate violence or abuse of any kind.

This may not be solved in the next five years or even ten, but certainly we must solve the problem...and above all not be a person who adds to the problems by shrugging off hazing as "part of sports." The Alfred University survey and media reports are showing us that hazing in athletics can get out of hand and end up to be literally sexual abuse or physical assault. I'm hoping that my books Wrongs of Passage (for adults) and High School Hazing (for young adults) can take what I've learned from experts, simplify the complex info, and help curb the problem. We must educate ourselves about what hazing is before we can lessen its abuses and frequency. If we try curbing hazing without understanding it, we end up calling some things mistakenly hazing that actually are bullying or some other offense.

I should close by saying I am part of the media I criticize and had to change my own attitudes toward hazing and media excesses--we all can stand some educating, and I know I have lots more to learn even after many years of studying the problem.

Hazing in American High Schools

What amazed me was the documented research that high school students engaged in hazing - some of it quite violent and dangerous too. Why do parents, teachers, administrators and school boards permit hazing?

Hank Nuwer: There has been a long-standing, simplistic attitude that hazing builds unity or is a "natural" part of childhood. For one thing, administrators, student newspaper advisers, or school board members that stand up against hazing often find themselves alone--branded as a pariah, rabblerouser, and so on.

There have been school board meetings where lone parents or a group of parents have come in to say that soccer or football are tough sports, and that those who would get rid of hazing are weakening the participants and killing the team itself. I also have talked with administrators who fear that prohibitions and policies actually encourage some would-be hazers by making it a rebellious or daring activity they must do. Again, I think we start with education. We make people (including parents, principals, coaches) defend their stances with facts and logic--not emotion and blind following of long outdated traditions like hazing. I really think we need to do this before we have a string of high school deaths on our hands. We as a community have a chance to reduce this problem before it gets so big that it escapes our hands. Witness how hard colleges have it to stop deaths from problem drinking and hazing.

I think if the issue of college deaths had been addressed more forcibly in the 1970s when it became obvious they were occurring, the cumulative number of deaths now would be lower.

Has hazing been outlawed in any states?

Hank Nuwer: Yes, 42. Some states such as Minnesota make it easier for a victim to get justice in civil suits.

Some such as New York are pretty tough laws and the first person to be criminally punished in that state nearly 20 years ago was a high school student.

Is hazing confined only to public schools or does it also occur in private schools?

Hank Nuwer: There has been some talk that hazing hasn't been as big a problem in some inner city schools where students not only go to school and play sports but have jobs. That deserves study. The number of media reports points to some hazing in private schools--including those with military traditions--but also other acts that I would refer to as bullying because they are not done to bring someone into a group.

Alternatives

Are there any activities which are acceptable substitutes for hazing?

Hank Nuwer: A number of schools and coaches are publishing what kind of rituals are positive and welcoming and violate neither criminal codes nor community standards. If there are skits that all classes put on, that can be a fun activity. But be careful, at one school the upperclass students made younger girls wear dog c0llars and leashes.

Always there must be adult guidance in such matters--along with close cooperation with student leaders. You have to expect the best of the students but step in if the worst occurs--no different from teaching, right?

Is hazing becoming more wide-spread or is it going to fall out of fashion?

Hank Nuwer: We are in an age when rough humor is the norm, as witnessed by the gross episode involving a chicken, police officer, and young men in the movie Me, Myself and Irene. There is also the media influence of such movies on video as Dazed and Confused with one hazing scene after another that certainly is glorified, in my opinion. These media influences, as author Edgar Friedenberg points out, are part of a manipulative mass culture that tends to blot out originality in our young people and adults alike.

We have such diversity in our school population today that students naturally choose initiations as a way of trying to make their own groups more homogenous.

I am not all that much in favor of colleges trying to find the perfect matches for dorm roommates. We are a diverse nation, and we have to respect and recognize our differences. As I write in my book, we are in trouble in those schools where critical thinking skills are dashed and people are slaves to fads and look only to relate to others like themselves.

I'm certainly not going to defend the shooters in Columbine, and I was sickened by such a loss of blessed lives...but for all the right reasons I would hope that civility can be the norm we strive for this year and future years. Students and teachers alike need to respect one another in order for learning to take place. Hazing and bullying and intimidation (especially if there are adults present who condone it or who fail to act when they come upn hazing) are the natural enemies of respect--and killers of self-respect.

Were you a victim of hazing? Does your school permit it? Please post your comments and experiences in the Forum!