There is a certain sadness when I read a story about yet another hazing incident. As a person who cares about and for students and as someone who believes there is so much good in engagement and involvement when it comes to hazing this all comes tumbling down. This past weekend my daughter was initiated into her sorority at her university. Since she began dreaming of college, she knew she wanted to be part of Greek life. As a person she is a kid who loves being part of things, student government, BETA Club, and now Greek life. There have been few indications that she was hazed or even threatened with it. Her chosen sorority seems to be running a nice operation and she feels close to the girls. I suspect much her sense of wanting to belong comes from being an only child. And for that her mom and I understand.
When college students arrive on campus, they desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves. The desire to belong to a group is about as innate a desire as it is to fall in love, hug one another, or cultivate friendships. At our heart we are herd animals. Therefore, for so many the Pandemic has been such a hard time. Once you take the herd away there is a sense of emptiness and loss. We also feel less protected and cared for. Groups make up the social nature of our lives. But there is a dark side to groups. When groups form there can be a group think that happens and this can have dire consequences.
Every year about six weeks into the semester the stories tend to start coming in. Each year it seems like it’s a different campus but this spring it has been Virginia Commonwealth University, Bowling Green State University, and Indiana University have been the most recent national examples of hazing gone wrong. Since the first recorded college hazing death in 1873 at Cornell every fall and spring there seems to be a ritual of reporting the consequences of hazing gone wrong. Since 2007 over 40 students have died in various hazing incidents. It is important to note that while fraternities and sororities are often stereotyped as the serial offenders of hazing, they are not alone in this practice. When I was working at Stephen F. Austin, I had to discipline a Student Honor Society, the Marching Band, and our Cheerleading team. Here in Florida in 2011 Florida A&M University band leader Robert Champion died during a hazing ritual. Of course, not all hazing is lethal and usually it will not be but it can be psychologically damaging and create a sense of mistrust within the organization.
Here is why it makes me sad. While I certainly understand the internal need to have rituals and traditions when it comes to student organizations what makes me sad is how often the escalation of some good clean fun is almost a promise. Often the exact wrong person for the job is named pledge class trainer and this can lead to so many bad outcomes. What really hurts are the stories of how and under what conditions many of these deaths occur. Usually, they die during a time of great celebration. As part of initiation or during a party where the older members do not understand how much is enough with a pledge class member. And as this person is passing there must be a sense of extreme fear but also disappointment that the very goal of belonging has resulted in dying alone. And the fear of alone is sometimes scarier than death itself.
In addition, there is a loss of trust for many who survive. While death is the ultimate loss the world is littered with broken souls who were hazed into another perspective on life. I have had students admit that because of hazing they distrust dating relationships, avoid joining other activities, and have bouts of uncontrolled substance abuse. And it is usually the students who need this experience the most who get hurt. Hazing is a crime of opportunity and exploitation. Often hazers identify what will make the member the most uncomfortable and take that to level 10. Then when its over they gaslight the student to make the feel like they “made it” and have “proven themselves”.
So, what are we to do? I wish I had the answers but there is a high likelihood that hazing is just part of our collective identity. We like hazing each other and will continue to do so if we have groups. The kind and form may change but the result will be the same. I do have two thoughts on how we can reduce hazing; the first is when we diversify by race, culture, and gender it has been shown that the more diverse the group the less likely the group is to haze. This is often because cultural and gender norms are not aligned and more often students will report and prevent. The second way we can reduce the number and impact of hazing is to be more engaged with our students from the beginning. I don’t have data to show this, but my experience is those organizations with the more involved advisors had fewer hazing incidents. And it makes sense, more supervision, less chance to do harm.
But it is important to remember that engagement with your students does not mean creepin’ on them. There are lots of ways you can show care and connection without getting in the way. Look, students are great, and they make your day, but they are learning too, and we need to be there to help them make sense of these leadership and gathering opportunities. Because learning a lesson should not come with the guilt of knowing your actions harmed someone else. I hope my daughter has a great Greek life experience and it seems she will because its important. She is happy, learning valuable skills, and it compliments her classroom work. I am proud of her and cannot wait to see where she goes.