How Hazing Becomes a Culture, and How to Fight it

Oct 11, 2013

A recent hazing incident involving more than 100 students at Seattle's Garfield High School has many wondering how such a thing can become part of a school's tradition in a district with a zero-tolerance policy. 

According to the police report, the victims were driven to the Washington Park Arboretum where more than 100 students and a keg of beer were present. There, they were paddled and "forced to drink shots of hard liquor" until at least one of them was very intoxicated, the report said. Eleven students have been temporarily expelled while both school officials and police investigate.

Seattle Public Schools spokesperson Teresa Wippel said hazing has become a tradition at Garfield High, which has a long history of such incidents. According to veteran psychologist Susan Lipkins, what begins as a benign initiation ritual can easily evolve into a dangerous culture over time.

Hazing is Like a Roach

Hazing is like a roach, says Lipkins. One incident isn’t just that; it’s a sign of a widespread problem.

“There isn’t just one of them. I promise you, it’s not just in one area. It’s throughout the school system, the culture; it’s embedded,” she said. “You may not know where it’s happening, or you may sort of be aware of it. You may not know the intensity of it, but it’s there. And it’s going to happen again and again. And it’s going to grow.”

Lipkins, who authored the book “Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment and Humiliation", says the seed might be a benign situation—what she calls “mild hazing.”

“For example, if you have to sort M&Ms by color, that’s a mild hazing. But if you’re being paddled or eggs are being thrown at you, or you’re being put into a dangerous situation, that’s no longer a mild hazing,” she said.

A Tradition of Escalation

The reason the situation doesn’t stay benign is twofold, says Lipkins. First, kids view hazing as a tradition—something that is observed and planned. And over time, through a process Lipkins calls the “blueprint of hazing,” the kids become desensitized and the risks begin to snowball.

“The process—what I call the blueprint of hazing—is that people come in and they’re what I call victims or targets, and they get hazed. The next year, they watch as others get hazed, and they’re bystanders. The following year, they have senior status in the group, and they believe it’s the right and duty to pass on their tradition. So they do onto others what was done onto them.

“The problem is that when they repeat it, they want to add their own mark. So they typically increase the violence of the humiliation or the sexuality. So if they do it even a little bit—one more shot of alcohol or two more paddles—over 10 years, now it’s a lot more,” she said.

No Safeguard in Place

Another reason the situation escalates is the lack of supervision, says Lipkins.

“Things spin out of control. There’s nobody watching. There’s no adult,” she said. “The perpetrators are telling you what you have to do in order to prove you’re worthy to be part of a group. But they themselves are not in good control.”

Lipkins likened the kids to an out-of-control driver without a seatbelt. And because there is no safeguard to stop them, the problem is guaranteed to grow.

“There is no edge. There is no boundary. There is no border that stops them,” she said.

Hazing doesn’t just happen in schools, says Lipkins. She’s seen it on sports teams, leadership camps, drama club, and even church groups.

“Twenty four percent of the students in church groups have been hazed,” she said. 

Advice for Parents and Teachers

Part of the problem is the adults themselves, says Lipkins. Some adults have a zero-tolerance policy for hazing. Others see it as a harmless bonding exercise and turn a blind eye.

“And that’s exactly what the problem is,” she said. “Usually there’s a larger percentage of people who support perpetrators. And a smaller proportion supports the victims or the kids who’ve been hazed.”

Lipkins says in communities without hazing, an adult in charge—a teacher or a coach—is usually the reason.

“I’ve interviewed kids, and they’ll compare and contrast why hazing goes on in soccer but doesn’t go on with wrestling. And it has to do with the coach. The coach has tremendous amount of responsibility and power. And when there’s a coach who says, ‘Not here. Not now. Not on my team,’” she said.

Lipkins advises parent to start communicating the same message to their kids when they reach the eighth grade.

“Maybe find news articles about it and start telling them about it. And [tell them] they don’t have to participate in this, and they need to report it,” she said.

“If you’re really going to fight hazing, if you’re really going to change the culture of the school and town, if you’re going to teach culture and respect, then it takes a village. It takes a lot of effort. It takes a lot of time and talking. I think it will happen one town at a time, one person at a time. But if we don’t, it’s just going to get worse."

Additional Resources

Cornell University's Resources for Dealing with Hazing

2000 National Survey on Initiation Rites in High School