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Natalie Morales and Hank Nuwer interview on Groupthink and Hazing

MORALES: An ugly high school hazing incident caught on tape. It has police in suburban Chicago considering criminal charges. It happened in Northbrook, Illinois, when the annual football game between junior and senior girls turned into in a muddy brawl. Five junior girls wound up in the hospital. One even had a broken ankle. There are also allegations that several girls were forced to eat garbage and had human feces spread on them.

Joining us now with his insight into this disturbing incident is the Hank Nuwer. He’s the author of three books on hazing, including “Broken Pledges.”

Good afternoon to you, Mr. Nuwer.

HANK NUWER, AUTHOR, “BROKEN PLEDGES”: Good afternoon.

MORALES: You hear about hazing incidents in college, unfortunately, but seeing that report, seeing the pictures there from that report, are you surprised at the extent of the violence among these high-schoolers?

NUWER: Well, this is obviously an extreme case. But in 1990, when I did my book “High School Hazing,” I counted severe incidents in 28 states. And every year, we have between 40 and 60 incidents that are reported.

MORALES: So this is something that is going on across the country, then? Is that what you’re saying?

NUWER: Yes. It’s an extreme where feces have been involved, but the beatings, the paddlings, the roughhousing, that is pretty common.

MORALES: The students describe this as an annual hazing rite of initiation. Why? You hear the human feces and what they were forced to do. Why would anybody go along with this kind of abuse? Is this peer pressure?

NUWER: Well, according to Irving Janis, who invented the term groupthink and who I interviewed many years ago for a book on hazing, he says that none of us get enough of that back-slapping, none of us get enough applause, and all of us want to belong. So we’ll go through anything in order to get that kind of acclaim.

MORALES: The Chicago police are now looking into as whether or not criminal charges can be filed against some of those teens. What is the difference between hazing and assault? And do you think that criminal charges should happen in this case?

NUWER: Criminal hazing charges are very, very difficult to get in hazing cases. Often, it’s easier for a prosecuting attorney to get serving alcohol to a minor or some other charge.

We have hazing laws in 43 states. And the law in Illinois was strengthened after an alcohol-related death at Western Illinois in 1990. Should — it’s important to get charges against those who are involved in hazing, but it’s more important, knowing that these are annual traditions, for educators and parents and students to work together to head off these kind of dangerous incidents.

MORALES: And for its part, the school says that this happened off campus, that, in the past, this is something that has been a rite of passage, that they’ve known about it in the past, though, that they have tried to stop this kind of event from taking place. Is there anything the school should be doing more to prevent something like this from happening again?

NUWER: I think that they should. Without having all the facts in the case, I can tell you that hazing incidents similar to this go back to 1924, Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, where girls were burned with silver nitrite. And the principals say again and again: We can’t be held responsible. This was outside our parameters.

Well, a lot of the planning goes on inside school halls, and a lot the celebrations. And outsiders here about it there. We need to have education programs stopping these before they get to this level.

MORALES: Hank Nuwer, author of “Broken Pledges,” thank you so much for your expertise and your insights.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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