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Empowering Students to End Hazing on Campus

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By Kate Whitney

Hazing, or the use of any action or situation intentionally created to humiliate, ridicule, harass, or risks emotional or physical harm (with or without consent) to members of a group or team, is illegal in 44 states—including Vermont.

However, hazing continues to be a problematic issue on campuses nationwide, with four deaths linked to the practice in 2017 alone.

According to the most comprehensive study to date of hazing conducted by the University of Maine in 2008, more than half (55 percent) of college respondents who affiliate with a student team or organization reported experiencing at least one hazing behavior, though most (91 percent) did not label their experience as hazing. Even though many justified the behaviors based on the perception that hazing builds group unity and promotes bonding, the majority (two-thirds) of respondents did not cite this as an outcome of their hazing experience. Additionally, many students displayed a limited understanding of power dynamics and coercion in group settings.

We caught up with Kim Novak, Founder and CEO of NovakTalks!—one of the featured speakers at this year’s Legal Issues in Higher Education Conference and a nationally recognized expert in student-focused risk management to get her input on why hazing continues on campuses and what she and others are doing to combat the issue.

When hazing is so publicly condemned, and it’s been proven dangerous (deadly in some cases), why are students still reverting to those behaviors and practices again and again?

There are a number of reasons why hazing continues in fraternity and sorority chapters, on sports teams, and within campus clubs and organizations. In some cases, the behavior is not understood to be hazing. This is most likely with less dangerous hazing that can still result in harm to potential new members and these behaviors are still considered hazing under laws, campus policies, and international organizational standards. Research has shown us that an authoritative motivator results in members believing that hazing is necessary for men and women to earn their place in an organization. A lack of consistency in hazing prevention messaging across the campus or within organizations, as well as a misplaced belief that hazing adds value to an experience also contributes to the continued presence of hazing.

The 2008 University of Maine study showed that 9 out of 10 college students who experienced hazing behaviors did not actually consider themselves to be hazed. What are colleges and universities doing to raise awareness?

Colleges and universities are providing awareness education through a myriad of efforts: policy, education, speakers, scenarios used as case studies, public reports of hazing incidents and the outcomes of those incidents, and awareness weeks. However, awareness alone does not change behavior as true prevention efforts are necessary. Campuses involved in conducting a problem analysis approach to hazing have found that understanding the causes and contributors to hazing leverages a greater opportunity to impact change than simple awareness.

If students perceive that hazing promotes bonding or group unity, do you offer alternative bonding exercises for students within your presentations? If so, how are those received by students?

Research has shown us that alternatives to hazing only work if the team or group really wants to change and stop hazing—so yes, we do offer alternatives for those groups that are looking to change. Generally, they are surprised because they think all activities that connect groups or “bond” them would be considered hazing, which, of course, is due to poor education on hazing.

Your workshops for students introduce them to the concept of Bystander Behavior and Intervention. When peer pressure contributes so much to the proliferation of hazing on campus, how do these workshops help students make decisions that they feel would affect their standing within their social circle?

Because data shows us that the majority of students do not experience the perceived positive outcomes of hazing and that the strongest attitudinal behavior of hazing is the belief peers approve, it leads me to believe that we need to empower the voices of those who do not see hazing as a positive behavior and empower them to remove barriers to action. I believe that spending more time empowering the student voices against hazing will reduce incidents of hazing and empower student interventions when it is planned or actually occurs. By shifting the metrics of social status to those who are willing to confront hazing we can lead change.

Can you tell us what student-focused risk management looks like?

It’s the engagement of students in the development of risk management initiatives by bringing them into conversations, creating a space where they can share freely their thoughts about risk and efforts in place to mitigate risk, and being open to student ideas for what would help mitigate risk. In my work, the majority of students do not want bad things to happen.

How do students typically respond to High Risk Management Education? Have you noticed significant changes to the way hazing is viewed by students on campus since you’ve started?

If the approach is more than just teaching rules and provides strategies for decreasing risk and increasing compliance they respond positively. If student leaders are provided with guidance and resources to help them integrate risk management into their organizations they respond positively. I have and continue to have more students seeking advice on how to prevent or remove hazing from their teams, clubs, and organizations.

The 2018 Legal Issues in Higher Education Conference will be October 15-17, 2018 at the UVM Davis Center.

 -Kate Whitney is a freelance writer.