Initiation rites are activities expected of someone in order to be treated as a full member of a group. Many groups, from executive boards to tribal societies, have recognized the need to initiate new members. An initiation activity may involve learning the history and principles of the group, engaging in recreational, team-building or community-building games, or overcoming some physical challenge that requires skill or maturity. Adult elders typically guide initiation rites toward specific goals using specific means gleaned from years of experience, insight, and wisdom. Initiates, however, do not know what is happening to them or what it means; their knowledge and comprehension comes gradually.
Our culture, however, has relatively few opportunities for youth to participate in adult-guided initiations or rites of passage and subsequently few opportunities for adults to learn to structure meaningful initiations for youth. As a result of the 1999 study, a group of university coaches was asked to offer their athletes two positive, team-building activities. They found it more difficult than they anticipated. One commented, "We agreed to do two initiation activities for each team. We wondered if we would have enough time (to do those activities in addition to practices), but we were not prepared for how hard it would be to create meaningful, engaging, effective initiations. No wonder kids get into trouble when they try (to devise initiation activities). It's really hard." To create successful community-building activities appears to be simple, but they require competence, practice and experience.
Adolescents blindly strive to be accepted and are often willing "to do anything" in order to belong, including binge drinking, sexual assault, and other forms of hazing. If society does not provide initiation, adolescents will attempt to do it on their own, often to the detriment of everyone involved, as well as the group as a whole.
Without the wisdom of experience, young people use humiliation, abuse, and endangerment to produce a story, a secret, a heightened common experience that creates the sense of bonding that they seek. Yet hazing is more destructive to human relationships than constructive, because it relies on substance abuse and other behaviors that are self-destructive, socially offensive, isolating, uncooperative, aggressive, hurtful, or disruptive at the expense of civility, integrity, respect, responsibility, cooperation, and compassion. The social, as well as personal, price of hazing outweighs the results-unnecessarily so. We can learn to bond and challenge each other in socially and personally constructive ways.
Many people ask, "But isn't some hazing good? Kids will be kids, isn't some of this just horsing around? Doesn't hazing help people from becoming too proud?" Some of it may be; however, more often than not (56%) of those subjected to humiliating hazing were also expected to engage in substance abuse, potentially illegal, or other dangerous acts. Humiliating hazing behaviors are a clear warning flag that more serious hazing behaviors may be involved.
Hazing is hazing, regardless of one's willingness to participate. Expecting someone to do something in order to be accepted by a group is different from engaging in that behavior of one's own choice. For example, being told what, when, and where to get a tattoo is different than deciding on one's own to get a tattoo. The urge to belong and prove one's self is so strong among adolescents, that they will submit to unreasonable and even illegal demands imposed by others.
Based on the findings of this study, several areas of concern arose:
- Students often felt adults condone hazing. Students are significantly more apt to be involved in hazing activities if they knew an adult who had been hazed, and they felt hazing was socially acceptable, an attitude they most likely acquire from the adults with whom they interact. Students' reasons for participating in hazing included thinking, "Adults made me feel there was no choice." Students often said they would not report hazing because "There was no one to tell" or "Adults won't know how to handle it." Students' perceptions, accurate or not, of adults' attitudes greatly influence their behavior. It is still our responsibility as a community to keep our high school youth safe. We need to send them clear messages-hazing is not safe, acceptable, or necessary. We also need to provide leadership, offer examples of how we respond to events going on around them, and pay attention to the world that young people find themselves in.
- Students often do not see hazing as a problem. Only half of the students involved in substance abuse and illegal acts as part of being accepted into a group perceived their activities as hazing. Although many students who were hazed reported negative consequences of hazing (71%) and negative feelings (73%), 60 percent also reported positive feelings. The second most common reason students would not report hazing is the "It's not a problem; sometimes accidents happen." Students are not aware of anti-hazing laws. Encouraging, however, is the fact 98 percent believe that dangerous hazing was not good and 86 percent think that humiliating hazing was not good. This suggests that education about hazing and the danger involved might be effective.
- Religious institutions face high levels of hazing themselves. The level of hazing for church groups was surprising. Not only did a quarter of the students belonging to church groups report involvement in hazing behaviors, they were more apt to be involved with dangerous hazing activities than students in other groups, except gangs, fraternities and cheerleaders. At the same time they were involved in more positive initiation activities as well. This is troubling, since our strategies to prevent hazing are to provide alternative, positive initiation and strong messages about the dangers of humiliation, substance abuse, and violence. Much more research into the reasons for and dynamics of hazing in church groups in the United States is needed.
- Students often see hazing as "fun and exciting." The primary reason students gave for engaging in hazing was that it was "fun and exciting." America is obsessed with fun. Being fun is a primary justification for doing just about anything. Fun equates with being worth it. A huge entertainment industry markets violence directly to our youth as being "fun." The Christian Science Monitor (July 21, 2000) reported that the $8.9 billion video game industry has now surpassed the movie industry in terms of domestic revenue. They note: "A study that appeared in the April issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that violent video game play is related to aggressive behavior and delinquency. It also suggested that the games may be more harmful to adolescents than either violent TV shows or movies, because players identify with the aggressor, actively participate in the violence, and become seemingly addicted to the games." Hazing, particularly dangerous hazing, includes aggressive behaviors. As a society we invest billions of dollars in selling pain-free experiences of violence to youth under the label of "fun." Our youth gain a highly cultivated repertoire of violence in the process.
- Hazing begins young and can continue throughout life. Many students are exposed to hazing at a young age. Six percent of all students responding and a quarter of the students who perceived that they were hazed in high school (24.3%) indicated they were hazed before they were teenagers. Nearly half reported being subjected to some form of hazing activities in high school and nearly a third reported being subjected to potentially illegal hazing activities in high school. Although humiliation and substance abuse increase dramatically from high school to college athletes, dangerous hazing is well established before college: 22 percent of all high school students reported involvement in these behaviors as opposed to 21 percent of college athletes. This basic level of dangerous hazing meets with significantly elevated levels of substance abuse hazing in college and a deadly combination is created.
- Adults working with youth should keep in mind that hazing experiences go with the student throughout life. Over half of the students in any organized high school group have probably experienced hazing for some group in their life (50-72%) and a third or more have been expected to commit potentially illegal acts in order to be part of a group (30-50%). These experience shape students' attitudes and expectations about groups.