Almost half the high school students responding to a national survey said they had been subjected to activities that fit a broad definition of hazing to become members of sports teams, cheerleading squads, gangs, and other groups.
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The study by researchers at Alfred University in New York, released last week, is described as the first serious academic research into initiation rites at the high school level. Some of the results surprised even the authors.
For example, the survey showed that 24 percent of students joining youth church groups had faced hazing. The study’s authors, expecting little hazing in that category, almost didn’t include it in the survey.
Among all survey respondents, nearly one out of four students was required to engage in substance abuse, such as participating in drinking contests. And 22 percent were subjected to activities the researchers defined as dangerous hazing not involving substance abuse, such as stealing, inflicting pain on themselves, or being physically abused.
The report, “Initiation Rites in American High Schools: A National Survey,” shows that 48 percent of respondents were subjected to hazing under the researchers’ definition, which was “any humiliating or dangerous activity expected of you to join a group, regardless of your willingness to participate.”
In addition to dangerous or alcohol-related activities, the definition included “swirlies,” or dunking someone’s head in a toilet; being yelled or cursed at; eating or drinking disgusting substances; and piercing or shaving one’s body.
‘Beyond Initiation Rite’
Nearly three out of four of those who were hazed reported that they had experienced negative consequences, such as suffering injuries or doing poorly on work.
“High school hazing is pervasive,” said Nadine C. Hoover, a private consultant who was hired by Alfred as the principal investigator for the study. “Hazing is going beyond being an initiation rite. It is becoming a way of life.”
The researchers mailed a two-page survey to a random sampling of 20,000 high school students across the country in April and received 1,541 responses.
Some of the most highly publicized incidents of high school hazing in recent months have involved allegations by athletes that they were sexually assaulted by teammates, but the Alfred survey did not address those kinds of abuse. Ms. Hoover had to promise the providers of her student lists that the survey would not ask about sexual practices.
But in an open-response portion of the survey, an undisclosed number of students reported troubling sex-related hazing activities, such as being required to have sex with multiple partners.
Ms. Hoover also led a recent study by the university, in upstate Alfred, N.Y., of hazing among college athletes. That survey, released last year, found that 79 percent of the 2,234 respondents had been subjected to hazing to join their teams.
A Need To Belong
Among categories of high school groups, fraternities and sororities led the list for their rate of hazing, with 76 percent of respondents who belonged to such groups reporting having been hazed to join.
Following were peer groups or gangs, at 73 percent; sports teams, 35 percent; cheerleading squads, 34 percent; vocational groups, 27 percent; church groups, 24 percent; music, art and theater groups, 22 percent; and political or social action groups, 21 percent.
But the greatest number of respondents were hazed for athletics, owing to students’ higher participation on sports teams than other activities.
The survey also indicated that most high school students did not perceive even the most dangerous initiation rites to be hazing. Only 15 percent of students said they thought they had been hazed, while their responses to questions about specific activities led the researchers to the higher figures.
Initiation rites are not necessarily bad, the researchers stress. Groups need to impart their history and traditions to new members, they say, and appropriate activities help foster a sense of belonging.
“For many teenagers, they really want to feel as though they belong,” said Norman Pollard, an associate professor of school psychology at Alfred University and a co-author of the study. “So they may endure any level of dangerous or humiliating activity to become a member of the group.”
Hank Nuwer, the author of the recently published book High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs, said the study was a good start for serious scholarly attention to the subject.
“The numbers for substance abuse and criminal hazing activities—those were higher than I expected,” said Mr. Nuwer.
Gerald N. Tirozzi, the executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said hazing “has not been very high on the radar screens” of principals.
“Some of these rites of passage have always existed,” he said. “But we don’t want any student in an American high school to be humiliated or harassed.”