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What's the Harm?

by Michael J. Daley

All Nikki wanted was to be accepted, to be part of her high school. Early in her second year, Nikki was excited to learn that she'd made the cut for a long- standing tradition known as the "Sophomore Kidnap."

As Saturday night approached, she was anxious. Everybody was talking about it and making her feel like she'd soon be a member of the popular crowd.

The evening began innocently enough. She and some of her classmates were made to sing childish songs in public like "I'm a little teapot, short and stout." Everybody laughed. Later, they slid down a hill with raw eggs in their mouths. It was all in good fun, nothing too serious. Then things took a turn for the worse.

They found themselves surrounded by about 100 drunken seniors. It happened so fast, they felt trapped. Nikki and her fellow sophomores were on the ground in the middle of the circle. That's when it began—boys urinating on them, others dumping dye into their hair, and to top it off, they were made to roll around over broken glass.

Would you call this harmless horseplay or a humiliating and potentially dangerous act of hazing?

This Youth Update will help you answer that very question. In the process, you'll take a look at what hazing is and how to distinguish it from other forms of bonding and initiation, why people engage in it, how to respond if you're ever faced with the situation and what connection (or disconnection!) it has to your faith relationship with Jesus and others.

Not So Rare

Whenever hazing is first brought up, you probably think of college or some branch of our military forces. Who hasn't heard a story of the fraternity or sorority party where the new pledge is judged to be worthy of admittance depending on how much beer he or she drinks? Or maybe you cringed when the evening news reported soldiers having medals literally pinned to their bare chests by superiors after completing basic training.

This type of behavior, though, is hitting a lot closer to home than it ever has before. Not only in number, but also in severity, high schools are becoming fertile ground for hazing.

In a recently released national study on hazing by New York's Alfred University, the conclusion was reached that hazing is a common reality in the life of high school students, affecting nearly two million teenagers. The study defines hazing as "any humiliating or dangerous activity expected of you to join a group, regardless of your willingness to participate."

With over 90 percent of those studied belonging to one or more group activities, 48 percent said they'd experienced some form of hazing. While many students had only positive things to say about their group activity, 43 percent felt they were subjected to some embarrassing or humiliating action. Some 30 percent also felt they performed an illegal act in the process.

Even groups you'd think are free of hazing, like church youth groups, are not immune. They were reported to have almost a quarter of their members involved in some way or another.

Of all the activities reporting hazing, athletics leads the way with close to 35 percent of participants claiming to have been hazed. Hazing in women's sports has not been as predictable. Yet, over the past few years, in sports ranging from cheerleading to softball, soccer to gymnastics, young women are catching up with their male counterparts.

In athletics especially, peer pressure and the need for team unity can come together with tragic results. So rather than receive the game ball after a well-deserved win or a varsity letter at the end of a successful season, some young men and women are given painful memories that last a lifetime.

A dramatic case in point happened recently in a New England high school. Like any other 15-year-old, first-year wrestler, this particular teen fully expected to have to prove himself to his teammates. He was unprepared, however, for how far that would go.

At first hazing consisted of being locked in his locker and later spat upon. This was humiliating, but nothing he couldn't get over, he figured. After he endured this for nearly a month, it got worse. One day before practice he was grabbed by two seniors. With the help of other teammates, they bound him with athletic tape. After that they started to hit his back with a plastic knife, causing it to swell up and bruise.

To top it off, the first-year wrestler was placed on a dolly (a device used to roll mats) and pushed into a wall where he suffered a knee injury. The next day he told the principal of the brutality that he'd faced.

How easily these hazing teens forgot the creation story of Genesis! In that biblical story, much is made of humans being formed in the image and likeness of God. The story of Adam and Eve, with its promises of power and control, sounds appealing and possible.

Genesis is a positive message of the great dignity you share with your class and your teammates. Hazing turns you from participators in the power of God the creator to imitators of the clever serpent.

One of the creation story's central truths is that men and women are created in the image of God. Hazing takes "a big bite out of the apple." You participate in the misuse of power and leadership. You become dangerous and disrespectful of human dignity.

Power Play

Part of the problem surrounding hazing is to understand when it becomes that. In response to any number of activities—being drenched with beer and shaving cream, told to lick other students' feet, paddled hard enough to leave bruises, placing Icy Hot on private parts, giving wedgies, getting dropped off in remote and unknown areas—many people will say, "We were just having fun. It was meant to draw us closer together." Another popular reply is, "Boys will be boys." Such answers indicate the difficulty and confusion many high school students have distinguishing between what is fun and what is hazing.

According to Hank Nuwer, author of High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs, hazing takes two forms which include both physical and mental aspects. The first type has veteran team or group members "test" new members by treating them harshly, shunning and ridiculing them. If these tests are passed, the prospective member is accepted fully by the team.

Commenting on his experience in soccer, one young man said, "I pretty much couldn't do anything about it. After going through it and becoming a member of the team, it was almost an honor in a weird way."

The second type of hazing puts the commitment of younger team members on the line. The aim is to get new players to show their loyalty to the team.

In the end, Nuwer explains, "these hazing activities force the newcomer to display conformity. Those who are hazed lose power; those who haze regain lost power by exercising authority over others." Here the Golden Rule of "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" takes a rather ironic twist.

The issue of participation is confusing for teens as well as parents. Many ask, "How can someone get in trouble if the other person consented?" Common to hazing is the experience that most things don't end up going according to plan or that those being hazed only know half the story.

Being new to the gymnastics team, Lizzie was aware of some of the things she'd have to do to be considered a member of the team. After a night of silly and harmless rituals, Lizzie thought they were heading back to a teammate's house for a sleepover. That's what the older members had told parents.

Instead, Lizzie and her younger teammates were taken to a parking lot and told to eat bananas out of the pants of older boys. Afraid and confused, she did as they told her. This is what Nuwer calls the "tradition of deceit."

Nuwer writes, "Nearly all acts of hazing involve deception. Hazers lie all the time to newcomers. First they lie about the severity of the hazing, which is intended to build fear in the initiate. Then as newcomers invest more and more as the initiation process nears an end, hazing escalates, always remaining a secret. Hazers also lie to one another, to adults and to themselves to rationalize that the brutal practices build group unity."

Pain of Fitting In

High school can be a very lonely place. Whether you're looking ahead as an eighth-grader, as the new, anxious kid on the block as a freshman or as the confident campus senior, you want to be accepted and liked by your peers. The usual way this social need is developed and expressed in high school is by joining teams and engaging in other extracurricular activities.

All of these groups—sports teams, mock trial, chess club, student council, band—want new members. It's not enough to be physically present, though. Groups want to communicate what it means to be a member. This usually takes place during an initiation.

Some initiations or orientations might appear rather taxing and time-consuming, while other groups may welcome you with little or no obligations. The word initiation appears in the now-common Catholic practice of RCIA—Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The RCIA requires a mature commitment to a long-term learning process. It is an involving process concluding with an initiation that is not hazing.

Such an initiation gives you a sense of Church (team, school) ownership. Through a positive, informative initiation, you will know not only the opportunities possible through whatever group it is, but also the responsibilities they have in mind for you.

Sometimes, however, initiation may degrade into hazing. Dares will be made. People will be intimidated and filled with fear. Alcohol and drug use will be encouraged. Peoples' team or group membership will be put on the line. Why? The Alfred University study offers several reasons.

It's fun. After participating in hazing, many people respond, "I really enjoyed it. I had a great time. It was a bonding experience for us." On a related note, others remark that they were finally able to prove themselves to the team or group.

The need to be accepted at times can make you rationalize behavior that ordinarily you wouldn't tolerate. As the saying goes, "Groups don't have consciences, people do." Unfortunately, adding fuel to the fire of the supposed "fun and exciting" part of hazing is the consumption of alcohol.

Peer pressure. Since hazing thrives on fear and intimidation, many students are scared to say no. There is almost a tide that can sweep up teenagers who become afraid to buck the crowd. They admit that they "just went along with it."

As one young athlete said, "I was afraid of what would happen if I said no." Here you can see how over time, if something is done often enough, even if it's bad, dangerous and destructive, people will think it has to be done again. As they say, "It's tradition."

Payback time. Though it seems hard to believe, what drives some incidents of hazing is simple revenge. The logic sounds something like, "It was done to me as a freshman. Now it's my turn." Far from being a tradition, hazing often turns out to be meaningless and mean.

Though you may have sworn to yourself that if you were ever in the position to do this to others you wouldn't, you find yourself doing it. This reason is about power—and abuse of power.

Creating Family

When it comes down to it, what you and your friends want during high school is a sense of community. Whether it's through football or the newspaper, track or the computer club, you want a place to call home. It's life-giving when you discover a team, activity or group that supports you, where you can depend on others.

Looking back years from now, you'll smile about that particular group or team that empowered you and allowed your talents to flourish. Hazing turns all of this on its head. Where there should be joy, there is anger. One who once was strong is now weak and confused. Someone you had earlier trusted and looked up to turns out to be a betrayer.

It's important for Christians to see hazing in the context of faith. Looking at the life of Jesus is a way to do this.

Jesus' disciples debated for some time who was the greatest among them. James and John had even asked to sit at Jesus' left and right hand, positions of honor. Hearing all this, and seeing what it was doing to them as a group, Jesus said to them: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave" (Matthew 20:25-27).

If a spirit of service is at the heart of your group or team, one where you truly honor and respect every person regardless of his or her standing in the group or talent level, hazing can and will be overcome. It must.

Michael J. Daley is a teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a freelance writer. He holds a B.A. in theology from Xavier University in Ohio and an M.A. from Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Brian D. Bruns (16), Nathan Bruns (14), Stephanie Bruns (18), Amy Hemmelgarn (17) and Marty Hemmelgarn (13), all active members of St. Mary Parish in Philothea, Ohio, met to review this issue. Cathy Bruns, parish director of religious education, scheduled the gathering.


How to Stop Hazing
Do's and Don'ts

DO increase awareness. Even though it's happening all the time and all around us, many people refuse to acknowledge hazing's existence. They'd rather put their heads in the sand. The first step, though, is to admit it happens. Inform your classmates and teammates of its harmful effects. Let your parents know about the initiation practices of your teams and clubs.

DON'T blame the victim. Often heard after hazing incidents are comments like "He let it get out of hand" and "She's just telling to get back at us." Participants try to shame victims into thinking it's their fault. Don't be fooled; the fault lies with those who hazed, not the other way around.

DO create initiation activities. Whether it's first-year or transfer students, establish structured and constructive ways for these individuals to come to know the school, team or group. Set them up with a mentor who will show them the ropes. This will ease these students' transition to the school and create the opportunity for lasting relationships.

DON'T remain silent. It's never easy to step out from the crowd, but if you witness or experience hazing, report it. Covering it up only creates the possibility of it happening again. Your story, or someone else's who's too scared to talk, needs to be told.

DO volunteer to draft a team or group anti-hazing policy. Ask leaders to require that both students and parents sign it. This will increase accountability on the part of everyone involved.

DON'T mix drugs and alcohol with any of your activities. Drugs and alcohol cloud your thinking skills and decrease inhibitions. The presence of drugs and alcohol results in tragic stories about hazing that end with "but we didn't mean to."

This list of suggestions is drawn primarily from the Alfred University study and Hank Nuwer's High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs.



How did hazing get started? Is there any good reason for an initiation?


You could say that hazing has always been with us. The Greeks and Romans practiced it long before anyone in an American school did. Hazing begins when a person or group takes advantage of the natural desire to be accepted, to be a part of a community. When done well, initiation gives new members a sense of what the group is all about. It tells them what their rights and responsibilities are. In the process, it builds up both the individual and the community.


If an initiation is allowed, what might a good one look like?


At many high schools today, seniors help freshmen rather than haze them. Before the beginning of the school year, seniors meet with small groups of freshmen. They welcome them and give them a tour of the buildings, which can seem large and intimidating. They answer questions and calm any fears the incoming students may have. They end the day with lunch. Instead of fear, friendships are formed. Community is built.


If there's a strong tradition of initiation (hazing) at your school or on school or community teams, how could one person change that?


I know it sounds easy for me to say, but you need to have the courage to ask questions. So often, people find themselves doing things simply because they've always been done. By asking questions, you're requiring that those participating in hazing offer reasons for their behavior. Convincing reasons will be hard to come by!


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