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Inside Hazing: A Q&A With Expert Dr. Susan Lipkins

Hazing can degrade, demean and sometimes destroy. Yet it still flourishes on campuses, in sports organizations, in the workplace, in the military — anywhere people create a group.

A national study of student hazing found that more than half of college students in clubs, teams and other organizations experience hazing, and that the most common hazing activity is drinking games. Tragically, this practice can be among the most deadly. Just one example: A 19-year-old Northern Illinois University freshman died in 2012 after being pushed to drink during a fraternity hazing. His blood alcohol level was four times the legal limit. Twenty-two students were convicted of misdemeanors in the death, making the case the largest hazing prosecution in U.S. history.

Hazardous hazing is a “virus that has attacked our youth and is spreading quickly,” said psychologist Dr. Susan Lipkins, a leading authority on hazing and the author of Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation. In recognition of National Hazing Prevention Week from Sept. 21-25, Dr. Lipkins answered some questions for Elements Behavioral Health to help parents and their children better understand what’s behind hazing and the mental and physical trauma it can cause.

Q: What led you to become an expert on the subject of hazing?

A: I’m a psychologist, and I specialize in adolescents. In 2003, a horrific hazing was reported in a nearby town. Three high school freshmen were repeatedly sodomized with broomsticks, golf balls and pinecones covered in Icy Hot while attending a pre-season football camp. They’ve been psychologically traumatized for life. I couldn’t understand how kids could haze one another, and I started to research it.

Q: How do you define hazing?

A: Hazing is a process used by groups to maintain a hierarchy or to discipline. Regardless of consent, the activities are physically or psychologically harmful or potentially harmful. Research indicates that at least 42% of the high school population is hazed, and I believe they carry this tradition and expectation to college, the military and the workplace. Even 24% of the students in church groups have been hazed.

Q: Why do people haze? And why do people allow themselves to be hazed?

A: The “blueprint of hazing” states that people are innocent and enter a group hoping to be accepted, but they’re hazed. The next season they’re bystanders and watch as others get hazed. Eventually, when they’re senior members, they become perpetrators, and they feel they have the right and duty to pass on the traditions.

I don’t believe people “allow” themselves to be hazed. There’s no consent in hazing because the nature of hazing is secretive, and therefore victims can’t predict what’ll happen. People want to be accepted by a group, and if the group has a tradition of hazing, they might be enveloped in it, simply because they want to be a member.

Consider the athlete who always wanted to play football. There’s only one team, he was drafted, now he’s hazed — no choice. If he wants to play his lifelong sport, he’s stuck. Same thing for a musician in a marching band, and so on. Once the hazing process begins, it’s very difficult — if not impossible — to remove oneself. 

Q: Do women haze, or is this mainly a male phenomenon?

A: Females haze, as do males. Often males are more physically violent and females are more psychologically cruel, involving humiliation and degradation — demeaning activities that often have a longer-term negative effect than those caused by physically aggressive hazing.

Q: How big a problem is hazing?

A: Hazing is huge. I believe there are thousands of hazings daily throughout the country. During specific times, such as the beginning of athletic seasons and throughout “hell week,” hospitalizations due to hazing increase.

Q: Hazing has been around for centuries. Is it changing?

A: I believe hazing is getting more violent and more sexual.

Q: Does alcohol fuel most hazings?

A: Alcohol is involved in hazing incidents mostly in Greek organizations. But beatings, brandings, sodomy and other activities often occur without alcohol.

Q: Hazing can quickly spiral out of control and become not only traumatizing but deadly. Why is it so often thought of in playful terms?

A: I agree hazing is integrated into our society and is viewed as a fun event. Think of the comic portrayal in “Animal House,” for example. I believe that most people don’t see it as a dangerous activity, nor do they realize that by participating, they might end up in the hospital, in court, in jail or in the morgue.

Q: How would you like to see hazing addressed?

A: We need comprehensive hazing prevention programs. I’d like to see large, powerful organizations such as the NFL spend time and money creating serious, comprehensive programs that combat all kinds of harassment, such as hazing. I’d also like to see a national hazing prevention act that funds research and creates a toll-free, anonymous phone and online center staffed with well-trained people who’ll investigate claims — similar to child abuse hotlines and programs for domestic abuse.

Q: What advice related to hazing do you have for parents whose kids are college-bound and might find themselves in a situation involving hazing?

A: I offer a list of tips at InsideHazing.com. Among the key points are to teach your children about hazardous hazing and that no one has the right to violate their body. If they’re interested in joining a group with initiation rituals, have them try to find out what those rituals are first. And talk to them about their ethical and legal responsibilities in a situation where someone might be emotionally or physically harmed. The best time for students and parents to address hazing is in the spring of the student’s senior year in high school, when they’re really excited about going to college and perhaps will listen to and integrate information on hazing.

There is still hope.

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