In September, when a musician in the Jackson State University marching band suffered a shattered shoulder in a hazing incident, the news sounded like a broken record. Four days later, three members of the Southern University band were sentenced to probation for hospitalizing two new members in a nearly identical incident from 2008. As parents and administrators wonder why it has been so difficult to eliminate hazing in athletics, bands and fraternities, a decade of academic research reveals the problem is bigger than many suspected and may be getting worse.
In 1999, Alfred University sampled 2,027 NCAA athletes from 224 schools and concluded that 79 percent experienced hazing. To follow up, Cornell University researchers asked 736 undergraduates in-depth questions about hazing in 2005, and, in 2007, University of Maine researchers surveyed 1,482 students in 53 institutions.
All three studies concluded that approximately 35 to 40 percent of hazing involves drinking games or excessive alcohol consumption. Sleep deprivation was the next most common technique.
“Alcohol alone has disturbing implications for students’ ability to make sound judgments,” said Dr. Don Corr, a New Jersey school psychologist and member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. “Researchers are moving away from focusing on why individuals either tolerate or engage in hazing, to looking at social factors and even the neuropsychology of adolescent brain development. Young people are simply not able to judge risks the same way as adults, particularly when they’re in groups.”
One of the most pessimistic findings is students are in widespread denial that the questionable activities they inflict or endure are considered hazing. Maine researchers, for example, found that “more than half (55 percent) of students report that they experienced a specific behavior that was defined as hazing. However, 91 percent of these students do not identify as having been hazed.”
The Cornell study concluded that “36 percent of respondents engaged in at least one activity that the university would define as hazing. … (only) 12.4 percent of respondents reported that they had been hazed.”
Perhaps as a result of its study, Cornell has an extensive anti-hazing Web site. Its section on “Theory and Research” discusses more than a dozen social and psychological factors that contribute to hazing. One is misperceived social norms, where a majority of members may disapprove of hazing but feel they are in the minority and remain silent. It also cites media influences that may encourage hazing, including popular television shows like Survivor and The Apprentice. These shows often feature college-aged contestants that endure activities similar to hazing rituals. Participants compete to see who can tolerate the most disgusting and even dangerous situations in order to make the final cut.
Research suggests hazing will be hard to eliminate because it meets many positive psychological needs, such as bonding between new and old members, and negative needs like dominance for those who need to feel powerful. In addition, students consistently engage in denial, underestimate its dangers and don’t perceive that there are credible alternatives that will accomplish the same results.
Some colleges are attacking the denial head-on by making it harder for students to convince themselves they are just engaging in pranks, bonding or team-building exercises. Harvard University, for instance, provides its Web site visitors with an interactive screening tool to help students define hazing. The school also has a hot line where students can report incidents anonymously. Cornell provides specific details of hazing incidents that took place on campus.
Because hazing is generally limited to a small slice of the population – usually young people in school or the military – anti-hazing efforts do not receive sufficient societal attention and support, experts say.
“Several campuses have had great success in reducing or even eliminating hazing,” said Phillip A. Johnson, the president-elect of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administration. “Consistently enforcing the laws and rules against hazing plays a critical role. However, it’s not just a job for the campus police. Students and parents have to give us the information we need to investigate, and the administration has to take it seriously because in most cases, hazing is punished by the college, not the courts.”
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