How You Can Help End Deaths Due To Hazing

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I recently finished reading Chad Ellsworth’s (of Caped Coaching and a Theta Chi) book, “Building Up Without Tearing Down,” and it encouraged me to reflect on my experiences with hazing as a student, fraternity professional and now an alumnus.

Each year I find myself less compelled or moved by Hazing Prevention Week, and I think a large part of it has to due with its reliance on slacktivism (another anti-hazing banner. . . neat) or the fact that it is a time to charge top dollar for anti-hazing educators (another anti-hazing lecture. . . neat).

We know that people haze and that some people probably like the idea – but we do not have any legitimate counter-argument to compete against. Because of the manner in which deaths due to hazing occur, hazing prevention is in a stagnant place. Our responses are the same as they have always been:

  • Condemn the behavior
  • Draft a new policy
  • Review or close the chapter
  • Require anti-hazing lecture education

Deaths due to hazing have increased as we have passed more state laws and funded more anti-hazing organizations, speakers and coalitions, but that seems to be the only solution offered to the problem of dangerous hazing. What gives?

Part of the problem is probably that most deaths due to hazing are accidental as well as the widely reported statistic that most students who have been hazed in college were or are unaware that they were hazed. We have painted this beautiful gray area around hazing so that, for example, any mention of the words “scavenger hunt” is immediately shut down without really explaining what would or would not qualify as a hazing event. 

The scariest element of dangerous hazing activities is that many accelerate from innocuous to dangerous over a period of a few years, often in secret, and become deadly because the chapter is operating in a form of crisis mode (as are their national organizations and campus professionals). No one, I repeat, “No One,” makes effective decisions in crisis mode.

So – here are some thoughts for chapter officers, chapter advisers, and general members to nudge their chapters away from these dangerous trends. (I admit that they may not well serve a chapter with a well-established hierarchy and hazing ritual to prevent an accidental death this fall term.)

Chapter Officers: Institutionalize & De-Escalate

Your job as a chapter officer is to create simple, well-rehearsed, and well-recorded processes for new member education. Here’s what I mean:

  • Determine what defines the way your chapter makes decisions. If someone suggests something outside of this vision then use that as a means to discredit the suggestion. 
  • Demonstrate by example: While I was chapter president and a senior member of our chapter I’d often sit with our new members, offer them important positions, and would emphasize that they needed to consider what they wanted the chapter to be and that my job was to help get them there. Disregard the hierarchy and tradition – few will actually challenge you (if they do then your chapter is, unfortunately, in legitimate risk).
  • Identify some brothers who understand what it means to educate new members and ask that they be present during new member meetings, that they help new members complete objectives, and that they serve as big brothers. Your education plan should prepare new members to be members of the chapter – nothing more and nothing less. Expect the same thing of all members (new and initiated) and let that determine whether a man/woman is ready to initiate.
  • Don’t waste effort getting hazers to recruit. You know the members who never come to anything and somehow expect the most out of new members? Yeah, let them stay home during recruitment. . . and ritual . . . and don’t tell them when parties are happening. 
  • Reach out to your national fraternity office, your campus professional, and representatives from your umbrella organization to enact legitimate anti-hazing reform. 

Chapter Advisers: Offer Alternatives & Explanations

Too often a chapter adviser will say “No” to something, suggest that it is or can be construed as hazing, and end the conversation. That is a wonderful way to make students feel discredited, unappreciated, and as if they are a nuisance. The key to advising is building trusting relationships, so consider the following when working to eradicate hazing:

  • Reason with chapter officers that expectations of new members should prepare them for expectations of brothers. Why is it a good thing for new members to run every morning but suddenly unimportant for initiated members to understand the health and discipline benefits? Focus on persuasion rather than coercion or lecturing. Ask them to better explain what they are trying to do.
  • Provide alternatives to what exists within Greek Life. Look toward orientation practices of companies and nonprofits and share that information with your chapter officers. Do this throughout the year so as to prepare for following years and so that you are not over-communicating.
  • Be present if you can at new member meetings, chapter meetings, recruitment meetings and ritual ceremonies. Pay attention to how members talk about new members, how they talk about potential members, what they look for in potential members and whether or not they take ritual seriously. Identify which brothers raise red flags. 
  • Be the example for your executive board. Sit with the new members, invite them to lunch or dinner, and show brothers what it means to care about and respect their future friends for life. If you want to get rid of the hierarchy then do it yourself. You will inspire members to follow suit.
  • Ask new members if they understand what is expected of them when they are initiated. If they can’t come up with a clear vision of what it means to be a member of the chapter, you know the education is ineffective and can use that to push reform. 
  • Reach out to your national fraternity office, your campus professional, and representatives from your umbrella organization to enact legitimate anti-hazing reform. 

General Members

You can get a great idea of what I’ll say here based on what is listed above. You may not have the power to change the rules of the chapter, how it conducts new member education or whether or not hazing occurs, but you can make it wildly uncomfortable for your chapter to continue to haze. 

  • Set the example and disrupt tradition – As mentioned above, do what you can can to disrupt needless hierarchies. Sit with new members, talk them up, help them study, learn about who they are and share the great things you’ve learned with other initiates. You can encourage other members to care more deeply for the well being of each new member.
  • Use the legislative process – In my Junior year I requested changes to a test we made all new members participate in after witnessing several members demonstrate some worrisome behavior (yelling, throwing chairs, fake slapping people, etc.). By vote of the chapter, we limited the event only to senior members in good standing and the executive board and we changed the questions to be factual and relevant to our experience. It was a small step aimed at preventing a slippery slope. 
  • Tell on your chapter early. In Chad’s book he details a hollowing experience of reading a letter he wrote to the university vice president detailing the chapter’s hazing practices aloud in front of his brothers. You may join a chapter where the situation is already terrible, and I can’t speak to your experience (I’m sorry), but if you are noticing that things are veering in the wrong direction then share this post with members, officers and advisers who agree with you and explain the specific situation as to why you are sharing it. 
  • Reach out to your national fraternity office, your campus professional, and representatives from your umbrella organization to enact legitimate anti-hazing reform. 

Questions or Thoughts?