The movie “Bad Neighbors,” released in 2014, stars Zach Efron and Dave Franco as the quintessential frat brothers and plays out scenes of raucous college parties and an undying brotherhood. A subplot to the movie demonstrates a darker element associated with college Greek culture: hazing rituals.
Many may see frats and sororities as the epitome of the American collegiate experience, but in recent years, the media has shed light on the sadistic world of college hazing. Perhaps the most well-known example of this was the 2017 Penn State hazing that resulted in the death of Tim Piazza. The incident led to the prosecution of 26 fraternity members and fueled a national call to action.
The fraternity is increasingly a place where hazing turns from a rite of passage to a deadly ritual. Since 2007, 40 college students have died from hazing, with the majority of those deaths related to alcohol.
A Hazing Definition: What Is Hazing, and Why Did It Start?
Hazing began as, and still is, a ceremony meant to welcome new members into a closed society. In a study published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, Michelle A. Finkel, MD, defined hazingas “committing acts against an individual or forcing an individual into committing an act that creates a risk for harm in order for the individual to be initiated into or affiliated with an organization.”
According to a national study on student hazing, 55% of students involved in clubs or athletics experienced some form of hazing.
While hazing might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, Finkel elaborates on the history of hazing as “an enduring activity with roots that date back to the ancient and medieval eras.” This may be why such practices endure in tradition-bound institutions with deep historical roots, such as fraternities and athletic organizations.
According to a national study on student hazing, 55% of students involved in clubs or athletics experienced some form of hazing. Of those hazing incidents, a large percentage involved alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, humiliation, isolation, and/or sex acts. Ninety-five percent of these cases go unreported, according to the same study.
Why Do College Students Participate in Hazing?
A particularly unsettling aspect of hazing is the active involvement of students who might otherwise be considered morally “good.” In an interview with NPR, author Hank Nuwer explained why individuals take part in hazing rituals:
“The power in a group-think type of mentality, where everybody is willing to do anything to keep the esprit de corps, leads to individuals acting as they would not act ordinarily because they’re in the group.”
Nuwer added that the power of the group is also what keeps individuals from resisting or reporting hazing.
Aware of the dearth of research on hazing, Jenny Nirh, Ph.D., dedicated her 2014 dissertation to interviewing fraternity and sorority members at the University of Arizona. In these interviews, Nirh examined why young men and women undergo hazing ceremonies.
One of her findings concerned the role of tradition at college fraternities: “Tradition played a key role in how students explained hazing in their organizations … [t]he participants from Sigma Beta were sure that the hazing activities had been engaged in for many years by many generations of fraternity members. The ability to tie the hazing back to what they saw as decades-long traditions allowed them to explain why the activities were important.”
Regardless of the justification, those who undergo hazing often view the event as a show of their high tolerance for psychological and physical pain.
egardless of the justification, those who undergo hazing often view the event as a show of their high tolerance for psychological and physical pain. A 1999 Alfred University study found that, “More than 250,000 students experienced some sort of hazing to join a college athletic team” and that among hazed students, “60% agree that it is important to tolerate psychological stress and 32% believe it is important to tolerate physical pain.”
The original goal of hazing was to humiliate new members of organizations as a means of testing their devotion and helping them bond through a shared experience. But hazing changed at the turn of the century, when violence became an important part of initiating pledges. Author John Hechinger notes that young men started using military hazing tactics in colleges following the Civil War.
In an article for Business Insider, Abby Jackson elaborates: “Hazing deaths are not new phenomena. One of the first high-profile deaths occurred in 1873 when a Kappa Alpha Society pledge at Cornell University was blindfolded in the countryside and left to find his way home in the dark. On his way, he fell off of a cliff and died.”
It’s important to understand that not all frats partake in hazing. But in recent years, the rise of deaths from hazing, as a result of either alcohol-related incidents or physical abuse, have caused a nationwide outcry surrounding the ways hazing is dealt with in the legal system.
College Hazing Scandals and Their Outcomes
While the media often portrays hazing as specific to fraternities, many other campus groups also partake in initiation rituals. One memorable hazing incident was the 2011 death of drum major Robert Champion at Florida A&M University. Champion died after members of the Marching 100, the school’s marching band, repeatedly beat him in a hazing ritual known as “Crossing Bus C,” an ordeal meant to garner respect from upperclassmen.
Particularly notable about Champion’s death were the fall of Florida A&M’s previously esteemed Marching 100, which was suspended for 2012, the resignation of the university president and band director, and the legal conviction of several band members for felony hazing. While Champion’s death showed the dark side of hazing, it also drew the public’s attention to intense hazing rituals and ultimately put the perpetrators in prison.
Perhaps more than any other incident, however, the death of Tim Piazza redefined the national conversation on hazing. A Penn State student and Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge, Piazza had taken partin a ceremony known as “the gauntlet,” in which he consumed a high volume of alcohol. He subsequently fell and hit his head repeatedly, including tumbling down a staircase, and died the next morning.
The Penn State hazing that led to Piazza’s death, like other such incidents, resulted in anti-hazing legislation. Passed in early 2019, the Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law provides stricter punishment and a tiered penalty system for fraternity and sorority members in Pennsylvania.
Will Hazing in College Disappear?
As the death toll from hazing rises, parents around the country are increasingly outraged by the lack of action that universities are taking to protect pledges. Recently, government officials have started stepping in when universities fail to punish students.
Earlier this year, Florida passed an anti-hazing law that allows for legal action against students who assist in hazing, regardless of whether they were present for the actual hazing. This new bill is named “Andrew’s Law” after Florida State University student Andrew Coffey, who died from alcohol-related hazing in 2017.
Increasingly, states are introducing anti-hazing laws and pushing for stricter consequences for hazing deaths or injuries. Currently, 44 states have anti-hazing laws in place.
Increasingly, states are introducing anti-hazing laws and pushing for stricter consequences for hazing deaths or injuries. Currently, 44 states have anti-hazing laws in place. While this legislation represents an important step toward ending deadly hazing rituals, the majority of these laws came about only in response to a hazing-related death within the state.
Despite legislative efforts, hazing has anything but disappeared; in October 2019, Ohio University’s Marching 110 band was suspended after hazing allegations surfaced — an investigation is currently in progress.
But, likely due to the onslaught of hazing deaths, universities are now paying attention. A 2019 hazing scandal at Miami University in Ohio resulted in restructured rules for Greek life, including a live-in fraternity house director.
In response to the new rules, Jayne Brownell, the vice president for Student Life at Miami, commented, “The new policies for fraternities come primarily out of concern for student health, safety and well-being and, ultimately, their success.”
How to Prevent College Hazing
If students witness or experience hazing they can call the national, toll-free, anti-hazing hotline at 1-888-NOT-HAZE (1-888-668-4293). This hotline is confidential; however, the call is transmitted into an email and then sent to the fraternity or sorority named in the phone call. Students and parents can also visit hazingprevention.org and stophazing.org for more resources on how to get involved in campaigns to end hazing.
How to Stop Hazing on College Campuses
|1. Learn what hazing is and the signs of hazing|
|2. Research and understand university policies and local laws|
|3. Begin a hazing prevention movement on your home campus|
|4. Take the hazing prevention pledge|
Written by Veronica Freeman