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Northwestern is the latest in a long line of universities to come under public scrutiny due to a scandal over hazing, a practice that has refused to go extinct in colleges and high schools despite multiple concerted efforts to end it.

Hazing, which in rare instances has proven fatal, in particular plagues sports teams and Greek Life. 

Experts say education on the issue and increased consequences are needed to create a real change, although they are skeptical the dangerous practice will exit school life anytime soon.

“Hazing has always been prevalent in society, not just in colleges. It’s anywhere that you see a different power dynamic between people who are trying to join a group [and] people who are in the group,” said Todd Shelton, executive director of the Hazing Prevention Network. “There’s research that shows that hazing starts long before college and in those younger ages. It’s especially prevalent in athletic teams camps, performing arts groups.” 

The latest high-profile hazing incident comes from Northwestern University, where the head football coach was recently let go and a barrage of lawsuits have fallen on the school. 

One of the reported rituals of hazing on the school’s football team was younger players getting restrained in the locker room by older ones while others dry humped the individual. Another incident described in a lawsuit against the school was a ritual called “carwash” where players were forced to rub themselves against a line of naked men in the showers. 

“Certainly, it is typical hazing activities that we’ve seen before and it’s not unusual that they’re shrouded with secrecy. So I applaud the people who came forward and reported because that’s — that’s key for institutions to be able to make changes,” Shelton said. “I think those acts are horrible and examples of how hazing can quickly escalate from what individuals think is something that’s mild and or funny, to quickly being something that’s dangerous, either mentally or physically, to the victims.” 

Experts say preventing hazing incidents has to start by educating people about its warning signs and dangers. 

A study in 2008 showed 73 percent of students who have been in a sorority or fraternity said they experienced behaviors that meet the definition of hazing, such as being forced into drinking games or getting screamed at by other members. 

The same study showed 74 percent of athletes in athletic programs also experienced behaviors that amount to hazing. 

“Hazing is specific to that group context where someone is seeking inclusion or a sense of belonging in a club, team or organization. They’re a newcomer typically coming into this group situation, and because of that group dynamic there can be an incredible amount of peer pressure and sometimes a coercive environment. And so that can impede or be a barrier to recognizing and or reporting hazing because there can be a lot of fear,” Elizabeth Allan, a professor at the University of Maine, said. 

These rituals and desires to be part of the in-group have led to some deadly consequences for young people.

In 2019, five Penn State University students were sentenced to jail after a 19-year-old student at a Beta Theta Pi fraternity house died at a party after hazing-based binge drinking.

While most hazing incidents don’t result in incarceration, there are other consequences for students who are caught for the crime. 

“Financial, monetary damages. People have lost their jobs. People have gone to jail or had, criminal penalties, fines and so forth. Let’s say sometimes when it’s a student organization or a team so with a student organization, they’re often suspended or lose their recognition with the campus for a period of time, and with an athletic team sometimes a portion of the season is put on hold or canceled entirely sometimes at the high school level, we’ve seen that recently.” Allan, who also leads the organization Stop Hazing, said.

And yet, even as schools ramp up their efforts, hazing persists.

Allan says a multifaceted strategy is needed to tackle the problem, and her group has developed a “Hazing Prevention Framework” for schools to follow.

“They can use it to also do some strategic planning and set some goals for the improvements they want to make, and all this is really … based on a public health approach to organizational change and promoting healthy behaviors in a community setting,” Allan said. 

Shelton said his group also advocates for hazing to be treated as a felony, whereas many states look at it as a misdemeanor. 

“The problem is it’s not taken seriously in the law, and we’ve seen a lot of hazing cases, even when there’s been a death… [where] prosecutors don’t consider it hazing or don’t consider hazing to be a serious crime to go through the measures of prosecuting,” Shelton said. “And so that’s why we’ve been working hard to strengthen those state laws.”

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