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.