safety in numbersLast fall, just as I went on maternity leave, there was an incident involving hazing on the East Coast that received quite a bit of media attention. It involved a group of teens from a local New Jersey high school football team and occurred at the time of homecoming. The teens allegedly held down other teens and touched or groped them in a sexually explicit way. One teen was also kicked. In the news article that covered the incident, the responses from adults in the community varied widely. One mother reported: “No one was hurt, no one died — I don’t understand why they’re being punished.” Her comment made me consider the question: “Is hazing ever okay?”

My goal with this post is not to stop teens from playing sports or joining activities. Every group is going to have it’s initiation process that helps the people new to the group bond and feel like they’ve joined something special. I hope to help parents consider what is acceptable versus unacceptable behavior to them and encourage parents to know the laws in their home state. Hazing occurs on most college campuses. Recently, schools have begun to take notice and many have policies in place in an attempt to decrease hazing incidents.

Many groups have historically involved hazing as a right of passage. It may occur as a youth joins a sorority, fraternity, athletic team or even a gang. It may happen as the seniors in high school ‘welcome’ the entering freshman class. When I think of hazing, I picture scenes from movies with young people subjecting initiates to embarrassing tasks and sometimes violence (such as being punched or kicked by the others in the group). As I take a little time to consider the verbs that describe the incidents during hazing (shaming, demeaning, punching), I began to feel more and more uneasy with the idea.

Is it ever ok to publically shame someone who has done nothing but desire to be part of a group? In the case of the football players in New Jersey, is it ever ok to grope another person because they want to join a group? When does ‘having a little fun’ cross the line to sexual or physical assault?

Hazing is usually amongst same age and same gender peers. How easy or difficult is it for someone to speak up and say ‘enough is enough’ if they feel hazing as crossed that line to assault?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but the State of New Jersey is going to charge the implicated youth. The question is whether they’ll be tried as juveniles or as adults.  In this case, the teens involved could end up facing charges of sexual assault as adults. This could lead to registering as sex offenders and long sentences at correctional facilities.

So what can parents do?

1. Talk to your teen about hazing. If they want to join a group that has historically involved hazing, ask if they’ve thought about what might occur and what they think about that.

2. Consider your personal views on hazing. Have you been hazed? Have you hazed someone? Are you ok with your teen going through the same thing?

3. You may want to role play with your teen how to tell the other team mates to stop. Discuss the definition of assault in your state. In Washington, assault is defined as: unwanted physical harm.  Let your teen know it is ok to tell an adult or authority figure if they feel they’ve been assaulted or they’ve witnessed a peer being assaulted.

Do readers have other tips for parents? What are your thoughts on hazing?

A resource to help stop hazing:

Stop Hazing