Above the pressure to belong

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High school students feel such a strong need to "fit in" that they allow themselves to be publicly embarrassed, go without food or sleep, engage in drinking contests, use illegal drugs, vandalize property, or suffer beatings or rape.

With students back in classrooms, high school hazing is finally on the agendas of American educators. Articles in Teen People and the American School Board Journal tell horror stories of physical abuse and intimidation. Hank Nuwer's recent book "High School Hazing" (Franklin Watts Inc.) documents an escalating pattern of abuse and even death, as students who join groups are forced to submit to ridicule and sometimes dangerous and illegal acts.

Hazing was once linked in the public mind with college fraternities and sororities, but it is clearly a much broader problem. A 1999 survey of initiation rites in NCAA college teams, conducted by Alfred University, found that 42 percent of athletes hazed in college had also been hazed in high school. Five percent had even been hazed as early as middle school.

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Following up this lead, the university published a new study this month of high school hazing, the first research to establish the prevalence of hazing in high schools. The study projects that each year, some 1.5 million American high school students undergo some form of humiliating or dangerous activity when they join a group.

Hazing practices, illegal in all but eight states, can range from social isolation and being yelled or sworn at to being held head-first in a toilet or being forced into high-risk sex.

The victims' consent is irrelevant. Consent given under pressure is not really consent, and the peer pressure - along with the desire - to join groups is strong.

In high schools, nearly half the students joining a group reported being forced to engage in some form of humiliating or dangerous behavior. Hazing was most frequent in sports groups. But it was reported in peer groups and gangs, cheerleading squads, fraternities and sororities, vocational groups, music, art, and theater organizations - even church groups. No one was immune, although newspaper and yearbook staffs had the lowest levels of hazing.

Surprisingly, only a minority of students perceived even the most dangerous initiation activities as hazing. While 15 percent said they'd been hazed, twice as many reported abusing subtances or committing dangerous acts as part of an initiation.

Furthermore, half of those who participated in hazing did so because it was "fun and exciting" - no surprise in a culture that defines violent, dangerous, and extreme behavior as desirable and "cool." From the background of violent images and actions marketed to children as fun and exciting, it is predictable that many of these same images and actions would appear in initiation rituals.

Even when hazing does not result in death or physical injury, it can have enduring consequences. Many students reported feeling angry, embarrassed, or guilty, as well as fighting with parents or peers, hurting someone, missing school, doing poorly in schoolwork, or even considering suicide.

The Alfred University study also points out students' feelings of isolation and mistrust toward adults. Forty percent said that if they knew about hazing, they would not report it. They thought adults would not know what to do about it, or they said, "There is no one I could tell."

Hazing is a much larger problem than anyone previously realized, but it can be prevented. First, students and adults must be better educated about state antihazing laws and local school policies. Those policies must be clearly stated.

Second, educators and club advisers must realize that hazing can arise in any group -no one is immune from the possibility.

Third, adults should play more visible and active roles in school groups, rather than leaving them to run themselves.

Fourth, adults must talk with young people about the distinction between fun and abuse, humiliation and danger.

Fifth, youths and adults must work together to create constructive, positive, and real initiations to build loyalty to a group.

Joining a group can and should be a good experience. Adults have a responsibility to work with kids to make sure hazing is seen as a dangerous, intolerable ritual - not just an unfortunate side effect of the need to belong.

Robert Myers is a professor of anthropology and public health at Alfred University in New York and was on the advisory panel for both studies mentioned in this article.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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