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The Truth About High School Hazing

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High school hazing
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Scott Austin

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.