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Patty Kleban: Time to Step Up and Stop Hazing

by on May 21, 2012 6:06 AM

Another near tragedy and more lives impacted by people in a group making decisions they would never make as an individual.

Hazing. 

This time it’s an initiation ritual for a “little sister” group that is not affiliated with Penn State but is affiliated with a Penn State greek organization. Just a few weeks ago, it was the women’s lacrosse at Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster. Last week, high school cheerleaders in Utah. Band members at Florida A&M. 

I was a sorority pledge over 30 years ago when the whole anti-hazing movement was just starting to roll. We took written tests on it. We weren’t mandated to carry our paddles to class. We weren’t allowed to dress up in weird costumes. We didn’t get the “privilege” of being blindfolded and being driven into the woods to work together as a group to find our way home.

Our biggest threat was that we had to sit on “Pub” duty so if one of the sisters living on the sorority floor wanted a milkshake or a soft pretzel from the commons snack bar, we would have to take her money and run and get it for her. No chugging. No bid poles. No beer slip and slides.  

Back then, we heard the horror stories of pledges at Penn State and other universities being forced to drink, the trunks of cars and death. We learned about alcohol poisoning. We learned that hazing is dangerous. We knew it then and they know it now. Sports teams, students living on dorm floors and even employees in some work environments know it too.

According to Hank Nuwer, author and expert on hazing, rituals forced on new members of a group go back as far as the 16th century. The idea that one must prove strength, loyalty and dedication to the group while senior group members assess membership appropriateness has roots in preparation for war and has been rationalized as part of the bonding process. 

Hazing, according to Nuwer, is not limited by gender, age, ethnicity or the group’s primary activity. For centuries, hazing was accepted and condoned. Consider the freshman Beanie worn at many universities. 

Today that Beanie would be considered hazing.

Researchers have attempted to look at specific groups to see if there may be a greater propensity for hazing in certain cultures or in certain types of groups. Racially segregated organizations like those involved in the recent incident at Penn State have been suggested to be more susceptible to hazing because of the status of membership and the affiliation with the organization beyond college. 

Alcohol is consistently a factor in hazing on college campuses. Young adults are prime candidates for hazing because of the heightened need for affiliation and social acceptance that accompanies our teen years.

There are some who suggest that recent legislation and zero tolerance policies regarding hazing has pushed it further under cover and away from the watchful eyes of coaches, advisors or objective adults. In other words, disallowing any differences in privileges or status for new members versus senior members makes the rituals more protected and more secret.  

In “The Hazing Reader,” Nuwer includes a timeline of deaths related to hazing dating back as far as the 1800s.  This shocking timetable doesn’t include the many other incidents of injury, psychological pain, sexual assaults and other undocumented effects of the initiation rituals of groups. Erroneously attributing hazing incidents to horseplay, alcohol violations or other factors (i.e. cardiac arrest) also suggests that this timeline represents only a fraction of the problem.

I have heard my students talk about pledging, initiation or “hell” weeks and have heard rationalization from both sides – pledges and members – that hazing is a rite of passage. I have seen the results in my classroom. The young man who came to class barefoot, with his feet painted blue, dressed in pajamas, who threw up in the garbage can.

The student who was dressed in a shirt and tie and could barely keep his eyes open after a night cleaning the fraternity. Exhausted students reeking of body odor and alcohol because they aren’t permitted to sleep, shower or sometimes eat but who are then “requested” to chug. Greek letters branded in skin.   

What should faculty do when we see what looks to be the remnants of hazing? Should we notify administration or is it hearsay? Will reporting the behaviors after they happen push these dangerous rituals even further into the dark?

On the other hand, how will I feel if I ignore the warning signs of hazing in the classroom and something tragic happens?

Recent events such as the death at Florida A&M and the beating at Penn State have again put hazing in the news.  University and high school administrations, legislators and parent groups are continuing to seek ways to prevent hazing.

The bottom line? As parents, teachers, coaches and administrators, our collective message has to be that nothing – including acceptance and membership in a group - is worth putting yourself or others at risk. 

Standing up for what is right, respecting one’s self and not going along with the group is a start.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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