College Hazing: What It Is and How to Stop It

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  • Hazing is a ritual that involves risk, pain, or harm, typically as part of initiation into a group.
  • College hazing often entails excessive alcohol consumption and ritualized pain endurance.
  • Over half of college students involved in sports or clubs have experienced hazing.
  • Recent deaths on college campuses have spurred anti-hazing laws across the U.S.

In the 2014 comedy "Bad Neighbors," Zac Efron and Dave Franco star as the quintessential frat brothers, playing out scenes of raucous college parties and an undying brotherhood. But the movie also demonstrates a dark side of Greek life: hazing rituals.

Many view frats and sororities as the epitome of the American college experience, but in recent years, the media has shed light on the sadistic world of college hazing, fueling a nationwide call to action. One well-known example is the Penn State hazing incident from 2017, which led to the death of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza and the prosecution of 26 fraternity members.

So far this year, two undergraduates — 19-year-old Adam Oakes from Virginia Commonwealth University and 20-year-old Stone Foltz from Bowling Green State University — died after participating in alcohol-related hazing.

Fraternities are increasingly becoming a place where hazing turns from a rite of passage to a deadly ritual. Since 2000, at least 50 college students have died from hazing, with the majority of those deaths related to alcohol.

A Hazing Definition: What Is Hazing and Why Did It Start?

Hazing began as, and still is, a ceremony for welcoming new members into a closed society. In a study published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, Michelle A. Finkel, MD, defines hazing as "committing acts against an individual or forcing an individual into committing an act that creates a risk for harm in order for the individual to be initiated into or affiliated with an organization."

While hazing might seem like a relatively new phenomenon, it actually dates back thousands of years. This may explain why such practices endure in tradition-bound institutions with deep historical roots, such as fraternities and athletic organizations.

According to research conducted by StopHazing, 55% of college students involved in clubs or athletics experienced some form of hazing. Of those incidents, a large percentage involved alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, humiliation, isolation, and sex acts. Ninety-five percent of these cases also went unreported.

Why Do College Students Participate in Hazing?

One unsettling aspect of hazing is the active involvement of students who might otherwise be considered morally "good."

In an interview with NPR, author Hank Nuwer explained why individuals take part in hazing rituals. "The power in a group-think type of mentality … leads to individuals acting as they would not act ordinarily because they're in the group," he said.

Jenny Nirh, Ph.D., dedicated her 2014 dissertation to interviewing fraternity and sorority members at the University of Arizona in order to better understand why young men and women undergo hazing ceremonies.

One of Nirh's findings concerned the role of tradition at college fraternities. "Tradition played a key role in how students explained hazing in their organizations," her dissertation explains. "The ability to tie the hazing back to what they saw as decades-long traditions allowed them to explain why the activities were important."

How to Prevent College Hazing

If you've witnessed or experienced hazing, call the confidential, toll-free anti-hazing hotline at 1-888-NOT-HAZE (1-888-668-4293). Note that every call is transmitted into an email and then sent to the fraternity or sorority named in the phone call.

For more info on how to get involved in campaigns to end hazing, visit Hazing Prevention and StopHazing.

You can stop hazing on college campuses by taking the following actions:

  • Check Circle
    Learn what hazing is and familiarize yourself with the signs of hazing
  • Check Circle
    Research and understand university anti-hazing policies and state/local laws
  • Check Circle
    Begin a hazing prevention movement on your campus
  • Check Circle
    Take the hazing prevention pledge

Regardless of the justification, those who undergo hazing often view the event as a demonstration of their high tolerance for psychological and physical pain.

A 1999 Alfred University study found that over 250,000 college students experienced hazing when trying to join a campus sports team. Among hazed students, over half agreed it was "important to tolerate psychological stress," while one-third believed it was "important to tolerate physical pain."

Hazing's original goal was to humiliate new members of organizations as a means of testing their devotion and helping them bond through a shared experience. But hazing changed at the turn of the century, when violence emerged as a central part of initiation. Young men started using military hazing tactics in colleges following the Civil War.

"Hazing deaths are not new phenomena," writes Abby Jackson for Business Insider. "One of the first high-profile deaths occurred in 1873 when a Kappa Alpha Society pledge at Cornell University was blindfolded in the countryside and left to find his way home in the dark. On his way, he fell off of a cliff and died."

Not all frats partake in hazing, of course. But in recent years, the rise of hazing-related deaths, whether due to alcohol or physical abuse, has caused public outcry over the ways the U.S. legal system deals with hazing.

Notable College Hazing Scandals

While the media often portrays hazing as specific to college fraternities, many other campus groups also partake in initiation rituals. Below are some of the most well-known hazing scandals in recent years.

Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (2011)

Drum major Robert Champion died after members of the school's marching band repeatedly beat him in a hazing ritual known as "Crossing Bus C," an ordeal meant to garner respect from upper-level students.

Particularly notable about Champion's death was the fall of FAMU's previously esteemed marching band, which was suspended for 2012; the resignation of the university president and band director; and the legal conviction of several band members for felony hazing. While Champion's death showed the dark side of hazing, it also drew the public's attention to intense hazing rituals and ultimately put the perpetrators in prison.

Pennsylvania State University (2017)

Perhaps more than any other incident, the death of Timothy Piazza redefined the national conversation on hazing. A Penn State student and Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge, Piazza had taken part in a ceremony known as "the gauntlet," in which he consumed a high volume of alcohol. He subsequently fell and hit his head repeatedly, including tumbling down a staircase, and died the next morning.

Piazza's death, like other hazing incidents, resulted in anti-hazing legislation. Passed in early 2019, the Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law provides stricter punishment and a tiered penalty system for fraternity and sorority members in Pennsylvania.

Virginia Commonwealth University and Bowling Green State University (2021)

While 2020 was the first year in 60 years to lack any hazing-related deaths, due largely in part to the transition to remote learning, 2021 swiftly took back any sense of relief schools and parents might have felt. Within less than two weeks, Adam Oakes, a first-year student at VCU, and Stone Foltz, a new member of BGSU's Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, died as a result of alcohol-fueled hazing.

Both incidents — especially that involving Foltz, who was kept alive so his organs could be donated — gained media attention and reignited appeals for schools to crack down on hazing.

Will Hazing in College Ever Disappear?

As the death toll from hazing rises, parents around the country are increasingly outraged by the lack of action universities are taking to protect students. In response, more states are introducing anti-hazing laws and pushing for stricter consequences for hazing.

Currently, 44 states maintain laws prohibiting hazing, but most deem it a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Additionally, many anti-hazing laws specifically refer to initiation rituals despite the fact hazing can take place outside fraternities. The six states without any anti-hazing laws are Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, and New Mexico.

In 2019, Florida passed an anti-hazing law that allows for legal action against students who assist in hazing, regardless of whether they were present for the actual hazing. This bill, called Andrew's Law, was named after Florida State University student Andrew Coffey, who died from alcohol-related hazing in 2017.

In February, the Georgia Senate unanimously voted in support of a bill that would increase penalties for those involved in hazing.

Quotation mark

Even more recently, the Georgia Senate unanimously voted in February in support of a bill that would increase penalties for those involved in hazing. The bill was created in honor of Max Gruver, a Louisiana State University student who died from alcohol-related hazing in 2017.

But many believe state bills aren't enough. In March, lawmakers reintroduced a 2019 proposal for a national anti-hazing law that would require colleges to post on their websites information about any hazing incidents that have taken place on campus or in student groups.

Called The End All Hazing Act, the bill seeks to "educate on the dangers of hazing, expose the groups that haze, and be the catalyst to end all hazing," according to the Gruver family.

Hazing may never truly end, but the recent rise in anti-hazing bills around the U.S. brings hope that the long-held "tradition" will eventually be seen for what it actually is: a dangerous — and often deadly — crime.

Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about health-related issues.

Feature Image: Vasileios Notis / Shutterstock