Schools were once thought of as safe havens of learning for our children- places where we could leave our children for 6-8 hours without concerns of safety. However, as more and more cases of school violence are publicized, the safety of our schools has come into question, fueling discussions of how to keep our schools safe. Most of these conversations have centered on bullying and school shootings. However, an often forgotten and perhaps even accepted form of school violence is hazing.
Hazing is a means of initiating new members into a group. Initiation rites have been around throughout most of our history and serve as a means to pass cultural or group traditions along to new members. They can consist of the completion of specific tasks or a series of tasks to gain entrance into a group. When appropriately or responsibly enacted, initiation rites can also build group cohesion, teach and promote discipline, and build respect among group members.
Hazing can be thought of as initiation rites gone awry. When the required tasks for initiation into a group become humiliating, degrading, and/or involve illegal acts (i.e. underage drinking or substance use, theft, vandalism, etc.) it becomes hazing. These acts can lead to serious physical, emotional, and/or psychological harm in many instances. Additionally, contrary to some beliefs, initiations consisting of hazing do not engender a respectful, disciplined, or cohesive environment. Researchers at Alfred University, found that 13% of those who were hazed responded by leaving the group, while 13% also reported wanting revenge on those who had subjected them to hazing.
Hazing is most often associated with the military, college fraternities and sororities, and athletes. However, one study conducted at Alfred University found that 48% percent of high school students reported experiencing behaviors that qualified as hazing, as defined by the researchers. Of these students, 25% reported being subjected to hazing prior to the age of thirteen.
So why is hazing so prevalent in our schools?
Teens and pre-teens are at a critical developmental period in their lives at which they are determining who they are and deciding with whom to associate themselves. In their search for identity they turn to their peers and look to become part of groups. This need for belonging was reflected in the findings that 91% of all high school students belong to some type of group.
Similar to the bullying research, no specific profile has been identified for those who engage in hazing activities. However, the students who appear to be at the greatest risk for being hazed appear to have some similar characteristics:
- have a low GPA,
- know an adult who have been hazed,
- and consider hazing socially acceptable.
Though there were some reported differences between genders in this study, these differences were primarily related to the types of hazing activity as opposed to frequency. Males were found to be more likely to engage in dangerous and illegal acts of hazing than were females.
One disturbing piece of information gathered from this research is that 40% of the students surveyed said that they would not report hazing incidents to adults. Additionally, 27% believed that adults would not know how to handle the situation appropriately. This data suggest two things: 1) that there is a general acceptance of hazing behaviors among students, and; 2) that there is a lack of confidence in both school officials and parents to effectively handle incidents of hazing.
So what can parents and school personnel do to prevent hazing? In order to prevent hazing in schools, it is important that a system-wide commitment be made to affect change. This can be done by:
- Clear policies and procedures must be developed and agreed upon indicating intolerance for inappropriate behaviors.
- Training must be provided to teachers, parents, administrators, and the larger community regarding the dangers of hazing.
- Individual and daily interactions must be increased between adults and students.
- Bystanders need to be empowered and encouraged to act when they observe or somehow are made aware of hazing behaviors.
- Replacement behaviors must be provided to fill the void left by hazing.
To elaborate on the final point, it is essential to provide school children with positive alternatives to hazing. As stated above, initiations can be very effective in building group cohesion, teaching and promoting discipline, and building respect among group members when utilized appropriately. Some suggestions for positive initiations are; group dinners, community service, and challenge and adventure courses. Challenge and adventure courses work especially well for fulfilling the need for risk taking behaviors that some of the illegal and dangerous forms of hazing satisfy, while also building self-esteem and group cohesion.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that conflict occurs naturally in every human environment and can be very healthy for the development of our children when monitored and handled appropriately. Normal conflict is helpful for teaching positive skills such as; decision making, conflict resolution, negotiation, listening, assertiveness, and perspective taking. When a safe and enriching environment is provided and the appropriate models are in place, these skills will often spontaneously
* The statistics shared in this article are from the research conducted at Alfred University on Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey. The findings were published by Alfred University in Alfred, NY 14802 in August, 2000.