Why are Teens Dying to Belong?

Hazing-SpreadAnd we mean that in the most literal sense. In case you haven't seen the heartbreaking headlines, a 19-year-old Baruch College student named Michael Deng died this past Monday from injuries sustained on a weekend fraternity retreat, making him—very sadly—just another victim of hazing gone horribly wrong.

While details are still scant, it appears that Deng and other freshman pledges were forced to run the "gauntlet," a ritual where initiates are blindfolded, weighted down by a backpack of  sand, and repeatedly pushed and pummeled to the ground. The recent Bronx Science High School grad eventually died from head trauma, but the subtext of the entire situation is clear: He was beaten to death. By other young men who were supposed to be his friends. How does this keep happening, you ask?

In our brand new January 2014 issue of Choices, writer Annemarie Conte explores that very question. And her deep dive uncovers the complex psychological and sociocultural issues that drive high school hazing, carried out in clubs, camps, locker rooms—even church groups—across the country. To put it simply, there's a fine line between tradition and torture, and your sons, your daughters, your star students—the "good kids"—aren't just in danger of being victims. They're under pressure to be the perpetrators too, since hazing isn't just abuse. It's abuse wrapped up in a false cloak of honor and tradition. As psychologist Lucie Hemmen explains further:

Many kids wear their survival of being hazed as a badge of honor. The terror and humiliation they feel fades and is overshadowed by their pride in being a member of the group. Or hazers might adapt the attitude, 'If I had to go through it, so do you.

In other words, hazing continues—and often escalates from year to year—because it's a cycle based on both group-think ("if everyone else does it, can it be so bad?") and power dynamics ("I'll give it worse than I got it!"). That cycle is a tricky one to break, but the first step is helping kids recognize what hazing is before it happens to them. This month's Choices article should help.

So read the story and share it with your class (we suggest you check out this TeenBeing post for more hazing-related discussion points), then let us know what you think. How can clubs stand up against  humiliating and harmful rituals? What can teams do to build a truer sense of team spirit? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.