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I used to banter back-and-forth with a local sportscaster who, each season, gleefully reported on a local team’s hazing tradition of new rookies. "Harmless," he said. "Lighten up!" he scolded.
In truth, this hazing was low-level and out in the open. However, the attempts to normalize hazing, and even laud it as mere shenanigans, was dangerous because it glorified the hazing culture.
That culture (often, though not exclusively, a toxic male one) can be dangerous and even deadly. At minimum, with the levels of anxiety that young people experience, negatively being put in the spotlight can have devastating effects.
As a former dean of students, I dealt with this issue frequently. While hazing is often associated with Greek life and athletic teams, I saw it in other groups: debate, drama, service clubs, and more. Often hazing rituals are passed on as traditions. In the business, we call them habits. Bad ones.
As a parent, what do you need to know, and what can you do about hazing?
Hazing is any behavior that can create physical/mental/emotional pain, ridicule, or embarrassment, and is expected as a condition of membership in a group. While hazing activities may be presented as optional, they really aren't. The draw to be accepted into a group can be so strong that people will put themselves in danger simply to belong.
Think of the dynamics in your family, in your career, at places of worship, and in organizations and associations. None of these (should) feature hazing. There is no reason that hazing should be acceptable in high schools and colleges.
What's more, hazing is often done in secrecy, at night, off campus (or in houses), and is being directed by 20-year-olds with tacit power and control. What could go wrong?
To consider this in simple terms, keep two main things in mind when identifying hazing behaviors:
That could mean coaching them out of harm’s way, including avoiding questionable activities. Suggest that your student opt out of any dangerous activities — especially since many of these clubs “say” such activities are optional. Usually this is said with a wink and a nod. Your student should follow their gut feelings, and opt out.
Make no mistake, the pressure to fall in line is intense. Indeed, the only way hazing can be effective is if the group accepts it. I used to encourage new members of groups to simply not engage. The team or organization needs these new members to exist and grow. Unfortunately, students almost never seized the power. They would rationalize that it was almost over, they didn’t want to make waves, etc.
As a parent, help your student really consider the ludicrous nature of hazing. Discuss the aforementioned conditions for hazing.
Usually this will be the dean of students. In most cases, there are state laws against hazing and that require it be reported, by those in groups doing the hazing, by others aware of it, and by campus administrators who are required to investigate.
When reporting hazing, think about the impact on your student. I would like to say that you're doing the right thing and protecting your student and others. However, retaliation can be real and the threat of ostracism will weigh on your student. Your child went to you because they were upset and because they wanted support from someone they trust.
Discuss what you can and can't do with your student. Your student can file a report or you can. You can be anonymous in most cases. Just understand that you will need to offer specific information if the university is to investigate allegations. This information can “out” your student as the one reporting, so be cautious about what you disclose.
Sometimes just talking to someone seeking guidance from their perspective can be enough to get the college or university to take notice and start asking questions.
Rather than relying on victims of hazing to take on the burden of confronting it, ideally students in positions of leadership can be pressed upon to break the cycle of hazing. I have seen too many times the cycle of new members vowing to stop hazing on their watch. They often have to face off against second-year members who like the power and go all-in on hazing. Then, by their last year in the club, as seniors, they're not even focused on it anymore. This can be their time to exert positive leadership, though.
So, what can you do? If you have a student in a leadership role, review campus hazing policies and state laws and share those with your student, who is probably being trained on campus and may even be signing non-hazing agreements. Mostly, though, appeal to their values of treating others well and keeping them safe. Suggest they be courageous in upholding these values.
If you want to break your heart, do an internet search for college hazing incidents. The problem is, once these things are addressed, students move on, and new students come in, hear the lore, and repeat the process anew.
Institutions have to be vigilant in an effort to keep students safe. Help them by knowing the policy and law and by having important discussions with your student. And if you are worried that you may be over-reacting, consider this: Where hazing is even a little visible, there is likely a lot more behind-the-scenes.