By Douglas Fehlen
A Deadly University Tradition
For many years hazing was seen as a normal part of the college experience. The 1997 death of MIT student Scott Krueger helped to change that. Krueger died of alcohol poisoning after he was forced to drink liquor at a fraternity event. The event opened the eyes of many to the widespread occurrence of severe, often violent, hazing practices carried out on college campuses across the U.S. After Krueger's death helped raise national awareness about hazing dangers, many colleges took actions to address it.
Sadly, however, abuses have not ended. No fewer than three high-profile deaths have occurred in just the past two years. Radford College sophomore Sam Mason died of ethanol poisoning after being forced to drink alcohol at a fraternity event. George Desdunes, a junior at Cornell, met the same fate in March of last year. In the latest hazing event to grab national headlines, Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion Jr. died in November after being beaten by fellow band members during a hazing ritual.
A Problem of Many Offenses
Not all instances of hazing, of course, make the papers. The behavior takes many forms and at varying degrees of severity. The U.S. Department of Education's Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention adopts a definition of hazing that includes 'any humiliating or dangerous activity expected of you to join a group, regardless of your willingness to participate.' Among actions singled out by the Center are physical abuse, forced alcohol use, kidnapping, bondage and abandonment. Other forms include coerced nudity, degrading games, forced exercise, sleep deprivation, personal servitude, interrogations and sexual subjugation, harassment or assault.
Hazing has been banned on virtually every campus in America, and all but six states have laws against such activities. But while public perception and government policy condemn the behavior, college students tend to be less incensed about hazing than the general population. Many are unfazed by widely reported tragedies and continue to believe hazing a 'normal' aspect of the college experience. This remains particularly true in Greek life, despite the fact that most organizations have anti-hazing policies in place. While often more common in fraternities and sororities, it's important to remember that hazing can occur in any campus organization.
What to Do About Hazing
Because hazing remains so common, students should be proactive in maintaining their safety on campus. A good first step is to research organizations you're considering joining. Keep in mind that college crackdowns on hazing have brought a renewed element of secrecy to these activities. For this reason, you may not get a full picture of what campus groups are really like without intensive investigation. Seek objective, in-the-know advice around campus before joining a student group or pledging a fraternity or sorority. If you do decide to join, experts recommend staying connected to people outside the group and informing them of your experiences.
Make sure you're aware of your school's anti-hazing policy and applicable state laws so that you can effectively advocate for yourself and other potential victims. If you are a victim of or witness to hazing, it's important to report it to authorities immediately. Contact campus police, student services or a department head with jurisdiction over the offending organization. Relate what happened, when it occurred, where you were and who was involved. Remember to provide as much information as possible. Also give your contact information and that of any witness who can testify to the abuse. If you're more comfortable filing a report confidentially, feel free to do that. Keep in mind, though, that anonymous reports can be more difficult to prove.
One last thing to remember is that many group activities designed to introduce new members to an organization do not fall under any definition of hazing. Benign initiation-style activities not intended to humiliate or harm individuals can represent fun opportunities for an organization's members to bond and get to know one another better. If you're unclear whether an activity constitutes hazing, talk with someone at your school to get clarification.