Education World: Your book, High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs, discusses the causes and consequences of hazing at all levels of society. The message, however, is directed toward high school students. Why target high school hazing? Doesn’t most hazing — especially dangerous hazing — take place in colleges?
Hank Nuwer: That may be changing. Collegiate hazing has resulted in at least 59 fraternity deaths and one athletic death since the 1970s, when alcohol became a big part of the rituals. A recent survey by researchers at Alfred University revealed that about 23 percent of high school students said they used illicit substances such as alcohol in initiations, and three years ago, a young high school student nearly died in a Santa Fe hazing tradition. Administrators and parents must discourage students from using illicit substances in hazing before we see deaths from hazing at the high school level as well.
If schools do nothing else, they need to let youngsters know that alcohol and hazing make a potentially lethal mix. And they need to let students know that even when hazing is not physically damaging, what occurs when inhibitions are down can include extreme humiliation and physical assault.
EW: Is high school hazing becoming more common or is it just more public?
Nuwer: There’s no way of knowing if high school hazing is more common. A survey out of Alfred University tells us that 48 percent of high school students say they have been hazed — 48 percent! But this is the first survey, and so we have nothing to compare it to. (My own estimates, based on interviews, were nowhere near as high, by the way.) Is it more public? Yes. When I was writing Broken Pledges, I had to work very hard to get information about hazing because so little was available. Even less was available when I wrote about hazing for Human Behavior Magazine in October 1978. Now we have master’s theses, doctoral dissertations, and thousands of journal, magazine, and newspaper articles on the subject.
EW: The stories of actual hazing rituals recounted in your book are very frightening; however, most involved college students. Are high school hazings becoming more violent as well?
Nuwer: Absolutely! We never saw sodomies in high school athletic hazings before 1983. Since then, we’ve had at least 16 sexual assaults and sodomies. Sure, that leaves an awful lot of students who have not had violence done to them, but I think it is a red light on the dashboard. We need to have it checked.
EW: Does hazing have any correlation to societal violence in general?
Nuwer: I think it does. We wonder how hazers can think it is funny to violate a person’s body by jamming objects in painful places. Then we see a chicken being inserted in an officer’s behind by the hero’s sons in Me, Myself, & Irene, and we hear audiences laugh. The longer I study these problems, the less I see such things as funny. Is it any wonder that high school student athletes beat one another with objects in lineups when the same thing was done by the New Orleans Saints football team — with very little action taken by the National Football League.
EW: High School Hazing calls on high school students to help put a stop to hazing. Shouldn’t adults be responsible for ending hazing?
Nuwer: My earlier books on hazing, Wrongs of Passage and were written for adults. They demonstrate the tragic consequences of hazing at the college level when school administrators do too little to stop it, and they call on adults to take responsibility for dealing with the problem. High School Hazing is written to help young people understand the dangers of hazing and what they can do about it.
EW: What can young people do that adults can’t?
Nuwer: Students who hold status because of their leadership skills, athletic skills, or other positive qualities have a lot of power to change the culture with their views. True, changing a culture of hazing and violence isn’t as easy as getting your peers to adopt the latest fad or watch the latest hot TV show, but these youngsters do have a certain power to change the opinion of their peers. Kids view activists or writers such as myself as way out of their age group — and, of course, we are. But if enough young people get the idea that hazing is wrong, harmful, and sometimes dangerous and then get that word out to their peer groups — fellow cheerleaders, athletes, and so on … I think we have a chance to change the culture for the better and to make hazing (as one student says) visible for the “gross” conduct it is.
EW: Do young people really have that kind of power when it comes to something like hazing?
Nuwer: Absolutely. Until the late 1920s, at least 14 students in this country died in collegiate freshman-sophomore hazing. Administrators railed against the practice, but they actually permitted these huge battles royal to continue. Then, in the late 1920s, Branch McCracken, a top athlete at Indiana University (later to become an outstanding college basketball coach) took a stand against hazing. McCracken was looked up to, and the student newspaper published his remarks. Students across the country began to regard the freshman-sophomore annual fights as adolescent, and the practice of collegiate freshman-sophomore hazing was greatly reduced. It is now, with the exception of military-oriented schools, nearly wiped out. Only one death related to freshman-sophomore hazing rituals has been reported since 1930. But it took a united front of administrators and concerned students to end this scourge. The point is that hazing will continue until students decide the behavior is adolescent, unhip, or a violation of their values.
EW: What can young people do when the hazing is condoned by or even instigated by adult coaches, administrators, or group leaders?
Nuwer: They can inform their parents, go to the police, leave a message on the StopHazing.org bulletin board, write to an anti-hazing activist (addresses are provided in the back of both High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs and Wrongs of Passage). If necessary, they can get an attorney and see if they have grounds for a civil suit. Adults have failed our young people miserably by condoning or even instigating such acts. They must face up to their own responsibilities and accept the consequences if they do not.
EW: How can high school students object to hazing without being labeled sissies or cowards or spoilsports?
Nuwer: I wish I had a positive answer. Many will become pariahs. I’ve seen it happen. That’s why those who haze must be punished by schools and, in the event of criminal behavior, by the court systems. Hazers must see that society does not approve of their actions and that they are the ones who should feel shame, not the victims. Too often only the victims get shamed. Hazers won’t know the full consequences of their actions until they are adults. Even then, since hazing involves deception and self-deception, they may not know the full consequences.
EW: In your book you mention that hazing has actually been occurring for hundreds of years. Why is it so hard to stop?
Nuwer: The need to belong is so strong that victims go along with hazing. It is done in a group, and so groupthink [the practice of reasoning or decision making by a group] takes over. There are all sorts of myths attached to hazing, and people want to believe them. Yes, a harsher hazing may make some people value a group more, but the Alfred survey tells us that many high school students skip participation in school activities because they fear hazing. Others quit teams because of it. Hazing has wrecked lives, caused deaths, created enemies. For what?
EW: Can’t some hazing be a character-building experience? Wouldn’t it be enough to simply ban the physically dangerous aspects of hazing?
Nuwer: Certainly, it’s most important to ban the humiliating aspects, the violence, and the drinking associated with hazing, but no form of hazing is acceptable. Hazing doesn’t breed character. It breeds deception, and it gives bullies an opportunity to get their licks in while, at the same time, getting the group’s approval. More than one student has horrible memories of high school as a result of hazing and bullying.
EW: Many schools have policies that forbid hazing, yet the practice continues. Why do you think that happens?
Nuwer: Too many high schools allow obstacles to critical thinking to continue. They allow an environment to exist in which people relate only to people exactly like themselves. Students (to paraphrase the writer Edgar Friedenberg) are enslaved by their school environment instead of being allowed to transcend it. And this is a direct correlation to our marketing-driven, media-driven, fad-driven, status-symbol-conscious larger society. Instead of educating students, too many educators demonstrate that they too lack critical thinking skills. They accept mindless myths such as “hazing builds character.” Ask the parents of Chuck Stenzel, Nick Haben, Chad Saucier, and many other students who have died in hazing incidents. They learned that hazing builds coffins, not character.
EW: What can educators do to put an end to hazing?
Nuwer: We can all stand to be educated. Hazing is happening in our schools, and it creates a climate that damages the learning environment. It’s difficult to get rid of hazing, however, if you don’t understand exactly what it is. Educators should read Wrongs of Passage or High School Hazing to see what experts on groupthink have said about hazing. Schools also need to develop policies against hazing and to establish chain-of-command procedures to follow when hazing occurs. Counseling should be made available for hazers and hazed alike. Many hazers were once hazed. They too deserve counseling so they can become the outstanding adults they were meant to become. If counseling shows deeper, bullying characteristics, these students may be helped before they do something criminal or violent that destroys their lives.
EW: Most experts on teen psychology agree that young people need initiation rituals. If hazing is stopped, are there alternatives that kids will accept?
Nuwer: Since young people seem to crave rituals, we need to allow them — with the help of adults — to substitute positive welcoming activities for hazing. Many high schools have already developed welcoming rituals. If your school has not, why haven’t you shown a leadership role in getting people to talk about it?
EW: What other types of books have you written?
Nuwer: Kids need role models too! I wrote To the Young Writer, which contains interviews with nine writers who are role models for teen writers. The nine are novelist Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (Shiloh and the Alice series), USA Today journalist Patrick O’Driscoll, photojournalist Max Aguilera Hellweg, sportswriter and Indiana Pacers vice president Dale Raterman, multicultural author Toyomi Igus (Two Mrs. Gibsons), poet Rebecca Kai Dotlich (Lemonade Sun), advertising copywriter David Young, screenwriter Angelo Pizzo (Rudy and Hoosiers), and music critic and author Alanna Nash (biographer of Dolly Parton and Jessica Savitch).