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On the first day of school last fall, many residents of suburban Millburn, New Jersey, were shocked to learn that a group of girls in the high school's senior class had created and circulated what they called a "Slut List," which included the names of 21 incoming female students and lewd sexual comments. Some seniors also ordered freshman females to show up for school in camouflage shirts, blew whistles in their faces and shoved them into lockers.
The scandal made national news—after all, it was big-league raunchiness at one of the best public high schools on the East Coast. But perhaps the scariest side effect practically escaped notice: Within a few days the town's middle school administrators discovered that some of the school's older girls had invented their own take on the tradition, ordering certain younger girls via text message to wear a specific color shirt to school so that they could be hazed too.
The Millburn case perfectly captures two of the most disturbing aspects of teen hazing. First, there's the way incidents can quickly escalate from bad to worse. Then there's how it morphs and spreads to younger kids. While most people think of hazing as something that happens only in college or to athletes, experts point out that's no longer true. "Younger and younger kids are hazing one another, and the rituals are becoming increasingly violent and sexualized," says psychologist Susan Lipkins, author of Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment and Humiliation (Jossey-Bass).
One reason is the simple can-you-top-this nature of kids, she says. A tradition starts—as in, respected seniors ask popular freshmen to wear a specific color shirt so upperclassmen can razz them about being new to the school. But the following year, shoving starts. Then the next year's class incorporates sexual taunts. "They remember how bad it felt when it was done to them," says Lipkins. "And even good kids say, 'Let's make it worse.'"
The other "whys" are more complex. YouTube-type technology plays a role; a major study from the University of Maine reports that nearly half of all initiation incidents wind up online. Also, as awareness of the dangers increases—hazing is against the law in all but six states and explicitly banned at many middle and high schools—the practice is being driven deeper underground, resulting in ever-more-disturbing variations. (And we mean really disturbing: In recent years high school kids have forced one another to take drugs and chug alcohol, and have even tossed bound-and-gagged teens into swimming pools.)
The problem is so common—47% of all high school students have experienced some type of hazing by the time they graduate—that it defies stereotypes. The senior members of athletic teams and marching bands are among the most notorious hazers, but they're not alone by any means—24% of kids who've participated in church youth groups have been hazed.
In general, those who take part in hazing rites don't intend for anyone to get hurt, says Elizabeth J. Allan, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Maine in Orono and coauthor of the largest study ever done on hazing. Instead, the situation just spins out of control. Maybe a boy will get playfully punched in the arm by the entire hockey team when he makes the squad. Or a girl will be ordered to wear her bra outside her shirt for a day when she joins the glee club. Neither seems like a big deal. What's missing is an understanding of just how volatile a group of teens—even the nicest ones—can be. "The mild behaviors create a slippery slope," says Allan. "And before you know it, the entire group is participating in some really violent behavior."
The rituals of hazing can make kids feel flattered and respected. Even if kids disagree with the concept of hazing, the fact that it's happening to them means they're becoming part of an in-crowd, says Stephen Sweet, a sociology professor at Ithaca College in New York. "The more demanding the group's hazing rituals are, the more kids want to belong."
A sizable minority of hazing victims believe these degrading rituals are actually good for them, promoting values like discipline, loyalty and commitment, says Sweet. (The University of Maine researchers found that 31% of teens say hazing makes them feel more part of the group and 18% believe it makes them a stronger person.)
In fact, for competitive kids (and also for their like-minded moms and dads) being hazed can be a badge of honor. Case in point: A high school in Marblehead, Massachusetts, is currently under fire for allowing a soccer coach to stand new members of the varsity team—shirtless—in goal, then asking older boys to kick balls at them so hard they leave a mark on the newbies. This is classic hazing, according to experts. But to many of the students and parents in town, it's simply a tradition that toughens up players.
And, of course, a major reason kids allow themselves to be hazed is that they just don't know how to stop it. "It takes a very strong, self-assured teen to resist a group and its leaders, especially if he really wants to belong," says Robert Stieber, an adolescent psychologist in San Diego. As he points out, many parents don't have the guts to go against the crowd and unwittingly pass on this "don't rock the boat" message.
But for teens who get caught up in initiation rites, the consequences can be dire—stress headaches, sleep problems, depression and panic attacks, says Lipkins. "In extreme cases they can even develop post-traumatic stress disorder." And then there's the ultimate risk: At least one college student has died in an alcohol-related hazing event each year since 1970, says Hank Nuwer, author of High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs (Scholastic) and a researcher at Franklin College in Indiana.
Experts say it's crucial to bring up the topic early—middle school is not too soon—and regularly. Start conversations by explaining that hazing isn't in the eye of the beholder. In other words, just because someone agrees to be humiliated doesn't mean it's okay, says Brian Crow, an associate professor of sport management at Slippery Rock University, in Pennsylvania, who has studied hazing in athletic teams and speaks out against it. "In states that have antihazing laws, a child's willingness to be hazed is no justification." Explain in simple language that it's important to stop incidents before they start, because while you understand not all hazing is horrible, your concern is the way seemingly harmless rites can escalate without warning. "Emphasize that no one ever means for anyone to end up in the hospital, or worse," says Lipkins. "But sometimes in groups, it's as if kids pass through some secret door—like going to Pleasure Island in Pinocchio—and leave their values behind."
For parents of kids thinking of participating in sports, many schools organize Q&A sessions, which provide a forum for asking coaches how they plan to deal with hazing, were it to occur. Yes, your teen might be mortified, but Lipkins says it's vital to send that message of concern. "Otherwise, it's the same code of silence that has surrounded hazing for so long."
These sessions are also likely to give you a feel for how seriously coaches take the issue. "Maybe he'll say something like, 'It's not hazing when we make the freshmen carry the water or clean the locker room—that's team building.' But if that were the case, each class would take turns," says Crow.
If you have concerns or suspicions, don't be afraid to call the coach, athletic director or school principal. The potential cost is too great. "Hazing will not build your child's character," Stieber says. "Nor is this the age to step back and let him fight his own battles."
But be aware that the possibility of a backlash is real. The National Conference on High School Hazing reports that in 40% of cases, kids believe that a coach or adviser was aware of the hazing. In that kind of situation, says Lipkins, things can get ugly fast. "The school and community may band together to turn on the victims and blame them."
Matt Weymouth can vouch for that. Nine years ago, when he was 15 and a student at Pentucket Regional High School in Massachusetts, Matt was sodomized at a football training camp. Initially he was scared silent, but as stories began to circulate, a vice principal confronted Matt, who finally admitted to what had happened. That started an ordeal that ultimately included threats against his family, a lawsuit and his leaving school for safety reasons and being taught by tutors.
Yet discussing the problem openly is the only solution. "The year after I spoke up, 50 more guys went out for football," Weymouth says. "They knew they didn't have to be afraid anymore. To me, that makes what I went through worthwhile."
One common element in many hazing horror stories is a confined, lightly supervised space like the ones below. These settings create circumstances where kids are more prone to get caught up in the groupthink that leads to trouble.
For more tips on talking to your kids about hazing, check out these Web sites:
Originally published in the April 1, 2010, issue of Family Circle magazine.