When I tell people I work to stop hazing in high schools I am almost always met with shocked expressions. "High school? Really? I thought that was something that only arrogant frat guys do in college." But it's true -- as long as I have worked on preventing bullying in high schools, I have worked to prevent hazing.
This week the New York Times reported on a defamatory rite of passage that's occurred for years at a high school in Millburn, New Jersey. Each year the senior girls create a freshman "slut list", complete with vulgar descriptions of the girls' alleged sexual exploits. This year's list became public when parents complained about it at a school board meeting. Check out my recent interview on Good Morning America about the incident.
Hazing incidents like this are always a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's horrible to be a freshman in your first few weeks of high school and already be branded with a reputation that you may or may not have earned. In the Millburn High School case the girls on the list in the past have apparently been subjected to additional torment, like having whistles blown at them in the hallway, and sticky notes with derogatory phrases stuck on their backpacks and lockers. But on the flip side, making the "slut list" means that the senior girls with the highest social status know who you are and actually think you're worth going after. For a lot of girls the initial negative stigma really isn't one at all -- it gets them noticed, albeit for the wrong reasons, by the right people.
Why do we take as a given that membership in a group should depend on being broken, demeaned and humiliated? The students at Millburn -- just like many of the students I've worked with -- dismiss the problem because it's "something we've always done, so why are people getting upset about it now?" And with that, the conversation breaks down between people who want it stopped against the people who dismiss the complainers for being weak. But what's missing is a simple fact. Just because it's happened before doesn't make it right. So when students (and even some parents) push back at me and say that the hazing process is all in good fun and bonds people together, I ask them the following questions:
What are the traditions of the school/team/sorority/fraternity that you are proud of? Why?
What are the traditions of the school that you think need to be challenged?
I am all for the importance of belonging to a group. But membership should come through merit not humiliation.
Of course it's not as if the second that I start this discussion that light bulbs go on in everyone's heads and they say, "You're so right! Hazing is terrible! What were we thinking?" The conversation that ensues is usually extremely heated as some kids passionately defend their actions in the name of time-honored school tradition, while some kids -- just as passionately -- advocate for change. But as difficult as it can be, it finally brings these things out into the open and gives the kids the opportunity to civilly confront each other.
At the end of the day, the real question is what is the cost of hazing. Some people think that it's harmless. But beyond the individuals that are actually hurt or humiliated in the process, it affects everyone involved. Because whatever an individual's experience, the worst thing about hazing is that it dumbs you down. The hazing experience and then the subsequent participation in the group forces its members to maintain the status quo and traditions at all costs. It demands mindlessness and unquestioned loyalty, resulting in boring people who have little ability to think for themselves or have an opposing viewpoint from those who have the most social power.