Hazing practices are all too common at the high school and middle school levels

Help young people recognize hazing behaviors and explore healthy alternatives to this illegal and harmful practice.

As we move toward a new school year, many middle school and high school students will have opportunities to get involved in a variety of youth activities. They may choose to be part of a school athletic team, the school band or groups such as a drama club, choral group or computer club. Many young people are also involved with groups outside of school, such as Scouts, 4-H, community sports and church groups. All these kinds of youth activities can provide young people with a positive sense of community and belonging through shared experiences that can contribute to their healthy development. 

When young people get involved with any kind of group, club or sports team, many experts stress the importance of talking with them about hazing practices, which are sometimes used to initiate new members into a group. StopHazing, an organization focused on hazing research and strategies for prevention, defines hazing as “any activity expected of someone seeking membership in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” While hazing is often minimized and viewed by some as important to a group’s bonding and traditions, it is a form of interpersonal violence and is against the law in most states. Michigan law states that that “a person who attends, is employed by, or is a volunteer of an educational institution shall not engage in or participate in the hazing of an individual.”

In a 2008 study involving college students, 47 percent reported that they had been hazed during high school as part of school activities such as athletics, Reserved Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and band and other performing arts groups. A recent review of research on hazing within college and school sports revealed that hazing occurs regularly at both the middle school and high school levels, with hazing experiences ranging from 5 to 17 percent among middle school athletes and from 17 to 48 percent among high school athletes.

Examples of hazing include verbally abusing new group members with demeaning names, depriving them of sleep, or forcing them to wear embarrassing clothing, participate in belittling skits or act as personal servants or “slaves.” Hazing can also involve beatings or paddling, or being forced to consume alcohol, drugs or vile materials.

While many young people have reported that they’ve experienced hazing practices, they’re often unwilling to label these experiences as hazing. For example, some research found that although 47 percent of high school students reported having experienced actions consistent with definitions of hazing, only 8 percent labeled these experiences as hazing. There may be a variety of reasons for this disconnect. Young people (as well as some adults) may view hazing as an important rite of passage or group tradition, and they may consider the experience to be critical to gaining the respect and acceptance of other group members. It’s important for both young people and adults to keep in mind that these kinds of activities are considered hazing even if the person being hazed willingly participated.

If you’re a parent or an adult who works within a youth setting, it’s important to have conversations with young people about hazing situations that they may be experiencing or know about. Stress that hazing is never acceptable, even if it appears that those being hazed are doing so willingly. Young people often feel compelled to go along with a group’s activities, and that kind of coercive pressure may make them feel like they don’t have a choice about their involvement. Talk with young people about important differences between belonging and fitting in, and emphasize that wanting to “fit in” by going along with hazing can have serious outcomes. For example, studies show that those who have been hazed can have higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal behaviors. There can also be serious consequences for a team or group that’s using hazing, such as having a team’s season cancelled, having group members suspended or arrested, or having a group disbanded.

Just as bystanders have a powerful role to play in addressing bullying and cyberbullying, young people who witness or hear about hazing can also take action. They can begin by exploring the perspectives of their friends and peers. While they may believe that most young people think that hazing is okay, they may be surprised to learn otherwise. For example, a survey with students at Cornell University showed that 87 percent of them believe that it’s never okay to humiliate or intimidate new group members. Encourage young people to use their voices to prevent and interrupt these kinds of behaviors, and challenge them to alert adults to these situations. Although some studies have shown that young people are reluctant to report these situations to adults, encourage them to connect with trusted adults who can be counted on to take these situations seriously.  Also help young people explore positive activities that teams and groups can use to welcome new members – activities that will help them develop positive and meaningful traditions that enhance their sense of community.

To learn more about these issues, including strategies that adults can use within schools and other settings to prevent hazing, see the article titled Parents and adults who work with young people can use a variety of strategies to address and prevent hazing. You may also be interested in a Michigan State University Extension initiative called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and inclusive settings.

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