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Coming Out of the Haze

How schools, parents, and coaches must unite to prevent hazing

With school in session again, hazing has returned to the headlines. Hazing — often confined to reports about sports teams and fraternity pledging — usually starts with foolish but harmless requests that can quickly escalate into dangerous and even life-threatening activity. How are incidents of hazing still occurring and what can schools do to prevent them? 

Firstly, a systemic issue prevails around schools clearly defining hazing and promoting an open platform to address hazing incidents. Because hazing is so difficult to monitor — it frequently happens off-campus, in secret — schools are often in the dark about its prevalence, focusing instead on other issues at the forefront such as drugs and weapons.

To combat hazing on high school and college campuses, administrators need to clearly define hazing, establish a policy to deal with it, and outline its consequences — similarly to how schools have implemented drugs and weapons policies. (The Commonwealth of Massachusetts outlines their definition of hazing here.) A few years ago I worked with school officials to prevent the expulsion of a good student who erred in bringing a box cutter —used for his after-school job — to class. Why did I involve myself with this fight? While the school weapons policy outlawed box cutters, regularly reviewing of the policy was not a routine procedure and the student didn’t realize that his tool constituted a weapon. Likewise, students may not be aware the activities they’re engaging in are considered hazing. A regular review of all policies should occur with all students, and within a school’s athletics department, coach-led discussions of what constitutes hazing must be ongoing and frequent. Furthermore, all students should understand that hazing incidents can and should be reported and will be taken seriously.

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But hazing can be quite nebulous at times, especially when alcohol or other substances are involved. An activity may not initially feel like hazing because the student isn’t yet uncomfortable, so it’s key for students to understand that hazing takes place on a continuum and to recognize when a line is being crossed. Parents are essential tools in hazing prevention, and schools should also open up a dialogue with them. In talking with their children, parents should emphasize that anytime their child feels uncomfortable or self-conscious they should leave the situation immediately and report any inappropriate requests to adults.

When addressing athletic hazing, it’s important to realize that a prevailing culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” underlies the camaraderie of sports teams. It’s critical for students not to be passive bystanders in situations where another person’s health, dignity, and life are at stake. Passively turning the other cheek to such behavior allows activity to continue. In a school’s efforts to address hazing, routes for witnesses to comfortably come forward should be made clear. Bystanders must know the power they have to prevent further hazing and be empowered to report incidents. To facilitate communication and the reporting of illegal activities, schools may even want to create an anonymous tip line or suggestion box.

Communication and knowledge are fundamental when it comes to hazing prevention. What differentiates hazing at the high school and university level are that college students are likelier to have more resources, and unsupervised time, to conduct hazing. But the same rules outlined above apply for both high schools and universities. Administration, coaches, and parents must band together early and often to make an impact. With a continued focus on prevention and advocacy, their efforts may prevent another tragic headline.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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