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The Problem With Reporting

By: Tracy Maxwell, CAMPUSPEAK Speaker

Why we can’t wait for or rely upon hazing being reported

This summer, Congressional Representatives Pat Meehan (R-PA) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) introduced legislation called the Report and Educate About Campus Hazing (or REACH Act) that would require colleges and universities to both educate students about hazing and report hazing information in annual crime statistics required under the Clery Act. I want to state unequivocally up front that I am in favor of this legislation for a number of reasons.

In the past few decades, hazing has finally begun to be treated like the crime that it is in most circles rather than dismissed as “boys will be boys” fun and games or pranks as it has been in the past (and still is to some extent in professional sports). The Clery Act, signed in 1990, required colleges and universities to maintain and report statistics about crime on campus in response to the rape and murder of Jeanne Clery at Lehigh University in 1986. Since 44 states have passed anti-hazing laws, it is high time for it to be included in these statistics.

As a hazing educator and consultant, I strongly believe that the educational requirement can have a significant impact on the community’s understanding of hazing and its consequences. However, I want to caution against a wholesale belief that this legislation is a magic bullet to this very complex and long-standing social problem. One parent said of the legislation, “If it had been in place in 2007, our son would be alive today.” I completely empathize with a parent’s desire for that statement to be true, but I caution against believing that any single approach, legislative or otherwise, will end hazing forever.

There continues to be sexual assaults in spite of all the efforts made on that front and its inclusion in campus reporting for nearly 30 years. There is no doubt they are mostly handled much better now and perhaps reported more often, though it is estimated that 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police, and 90% of campus rapes are not reported at all (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2015). It is dangerous to think that increased reporting will completely eliminate hazing either. Sexual assault is often referred to as the least reported crime, but research from the University of Maine (Allan & Madden, 2008) shows that the vast majority of hazing isn’t reported either. For that reason alone, it is unwise for universities to rely on reporting as the only or even the best method for dealing with hazing effectively.

How reports are dealt with

Even when hazing is reported by a victim who experienced it first-hand, the chances of that report leading to a conviction in a court of law or even a guilty finding in a campus conduct process seem to be quite low. In the case of Timothy Piazza at Penn State, there was a video of the events leading to his death, and no question about what occurred, and still a district judge threw out most of the 900 charges against 18 individuals after an initial hearing. In countless other cases across the country, charges have not been filed at all, and even when they are, hazing cases rarely go to trial and are unlikely to lead to actual convictions or significant consequences for perpetrators.

In other instances, students “get their stories straight” and band together to keep the facts hidden, making it incredibly difficult to investigate or adjudicate effectively. Most often everyone involved finds the experience frustrating and ineffective, causing some to surrender their hopes of ever making progress on this seemingly intractable issue. This combination of factors can make it difficult to produce any meaningful outcome or even learning experience for those involved through either a student conduct or criminal proceeding, even in extremely egregious cases.

The most common form of sanctioning on the organizational level is often the most extreme – loss of a season or even dissolution of a team and complete disbanding of organizations. In that case, one hazing organization is shuttered leaving others operating in a student culture that often continues to support the practice. In cases of less extreme sanctioning, the campus community is often not informed about the outcome thus eliminating any deterrent effect on the rest of the community. Sometimes there is so much confusion and annoyance because of the lack of reliable information after the fact that it actually discourages future reporting altogether as students aren’t clear what, if anything, happens to organizations or individuals who are charged.

Most hazing is never reported

The statistics above refer only to that which students actually identify as hazing, but the same study revealed that 9 in 10 don’t recognize what happened to them as hazing, although behaviors they detailed would clearly be identified as such. As much as 95% of hazing is never reported. At least part of the reason is that students don’t want to get their team/organization in trouble (37%). Additionally, 36% say they would not report hazing primarily because “there’s no one to tell,” and 27% feel that adults won’t handle it right (Allan & Madden, 2008).

There is a tremendous amount of confusion when it comes to this issue, and as professionals and advisors, we haven’t always done the best job of clarifying this for students. We have sometimes stated that anything one group has to do that another doesn’t is automatically hazing, but this doesn’t meet the humiliation or potential for physical or psychological harm standard set forth in the most commonly used hazing definitions. Sometimes newer members have to do things that older members have already done, but that doesn’t necessarily make those activities hazing or even detrimental. It is the context of those activities that determine whether or not they are hazing.

Second-class citizenship type behaviors are a slippery slope, and can certainly indicate, or lead to more serious or dangerous activities. When we make a federal case out of seemingly minor issues, students get understandably frustrated. When everything is hazing, then nothing is hazing, and it can be incredibly difficult for students to identify what crosses the line. It is useful to remind them that they know the difference between what is helpful and what is harmful, even when it is difficult to determine whether or not it is hazing. Long-standing traditions, alumni pressure to do what was done in the past and students who only know what was done to them lead to organizational cultures in which dangerous practices continue without being questioned by participants.

It is only in the last 20 years that we have any significant data on hazing. We are just beginning to scratch the surface on what types of hazing are most common among which groups, and when it is most likely to occur. We still have little understanding of why people haze and allow themselves to be hazed, though the practice dates back centuries. For this reason, the educational requirement of the legislation is a very good idea, and more research is needed as well.

Many campuses and organizations provide for the anonymous reporting of hazing and even allow conduct cases to proceed without a named complainant. This helps make it easier for students to make the decision to come forward, but for most, the stigma and likely ostracizing they will face does not make reporting a viable or safe path to take. When education increases and recognition of hazing becomes more clear-cut, reports will likely rise, and that is a good thing, as it allows practices that have likely been around for some time to be brought to light. But as administrators, if we are waiting to deal with hazing until it is reported then we are missing the boat. Like an iceberg, more than 90-percent of which is underwater, most hazing will remain hidden and unreported. Therefore, it is crucial that we are taking actions well upstream of potential problems in order to do all we can to steer clear of a catastrophic collision course. Waiting for someone to scream, “Iceberg, straight ahead,” or even after we have rammed into it full-speed is too late.

Works Cited

National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Statistics about sexual violence:

information and statistics for journalists, 2015.        

     http://nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-

     packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf

Allan, E.J, & Madden, M. (2008). Hazing in view: College students at risk. Initial        

     findings from the national study of student hazing.

To learn more about Tracy Maxwell and her program offerings, visit campuspeak.com/maxwell.