Hurt. Humiliated. Hazed.

Hazing is used to prove that members are ‘worthy’ of being in that group, but it can be way too extreme.

Artwork by Daniel Hertzberg

What happens when tradition becomes torture? It’s called hazing—and even the nicest kids can be guilty of it.

Joe Hunt tore open his locker door and scrambled to pull out his clothes. Swim practice had just ended, and most of the team had hit the showers. The coaches rarely came into the locker room, so if something was going to happen, this would be the time. Joe glanced over his shoulder, his heart racing. Since freshman year, Joe, now a sophomore, had been avoiding confrontation by skipping the shower after practice and rushing out the door. He knew that if he left as quickly as possible, he’d be safe. But as Joe finished yanking on his jeans, one of the juniors on the team snuck up behind him, picked him up by the legs, and dragged him toward the door, where another teammate waited with a pair of clippers. “I was being held up horizontally while they tried to shave my head. I managed to grab the clippers out of his hand and they dropped me,” Joe, now 19, says. “I stood up and was cursing at them, my hands shaking with rage.”

Joe had reached his breaking point. For the past year and a half, he and most of the underclassmen swimmers at Munster High School in Munster, Indiana, had endured systematic attacks and humiliations by some of the juniors and seniors: having their shower supplies stolen, getting smeared with Icy Hot before practice (it burns when it gets wet), and being whacked so hard on the thighs with a plastic bat called the “Peacemaker” that they had bruises.

In these acts, Joe’s team was experiencing a form of violence called hazing, and most of them justified it as just something they had to deal with until they became upperclassmen. But Joe knew it had gone too far. “Hazing is used to prove that members are ‘worthy’ of being in that group,” says Dr. Susan Lipkins, psychologist and author of Preventing Hazing. “It’s designed to humiliate and establish a pecking order. It can be something that seems mild, like making boys dress as girls, or it can be extreme—like beatings, or being forced to drink lethal amounts of alcohol.”

More Than Athletes

If you’ve heard the word hazing before, you might think of military training, or of college fraternities and sororities—but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “Every day, every season, young people are being hazed—band, debate club, leadership camp. It is even estimated that 24 percent of the kids in church groups get hazed,” says Lipkins. There are few concrete statistics on hazing, but experts estimate that 1.5 million high school students are hazed each year. And since most incidents don’t get reported, the problem is likely far worse than anyone realizes.

According to Lipkins, hazing shouldn’t be confused with bullying: “Bullying is generally one person (or a few people) attacking a single person to get something, like power or popularity. But hazing is a group process, and the hazers think they’re upholding a tradition that builds team spirit.”

The problem is, hazing gets more dangerous as each class increases the severity of what they do to initiate the younger generations—and kids are being hurt. “The hazers operate under the mistaken belief that if the new kids make it through, the team as a whole is stronger,” says Elliot Hopkins, director of educational services for the National Federation of State High School Associations. “It gets woven into the fabric of the group over time because it’s considered a rite of passage. But hazing is not tradition. It’s abuse.”

And sadly, there have been times when kids didn’t make it through. Take, for example, the case of Robert Champion, a drum major in Florida A&M University’s marching band. In 2011, he died after a “crossing ritual,” which essentially involved him running from the back of the bus to the front while his fellow band members kicked and punched him—to death.

The Painful Cycle

So how does “tradition” get so out of control that teens are killed by people who are supposed to be their friends? “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,” says psychologist Lucie Hemmen. “Or hazers might adopt the attitude, ‘If I had to go through it, so do you.’”

It is in this way that hazers often lose empathy for the people they’re hazing. “Emotional or physical violence can cause you to forget your individual values and think like the group. You want to be in the group, so you allow the behavior to happen, even if it’s not something you’d normally do,” says Hemmen.

This is why teens endure hazing too. “People tend to look at the reactions of everyone around them,” says Hemmen. “So if you’re uncomfortable but see other people sucking it up, you feel that pressure to not speak up.”

This explains why Joe’s teammates changed the subject when he tried to talk to them about hazing rituals. “We were really ashamed, and no one had the courage to do anything about it,” Joe says.

The Breaking Point

For Joe, the hazing took a huge toll. His grades began to plummet. He felt depressed. When his mother finally got him to tell her what was going on, she encouraged him to talk to authorities, but Joe was torn. On one hand, the team was his whole world. He loved competing, and he wanted the team to do well. But he also felt that by speaking up, he could end the abuse. “I thought if I told adults what was going on, they’d fix the problem. Then I could come back junior year and have all of the things I loved about swimming without any of the terrible stuff,” he says.

But Joe says that even though the administration said they investigated, nothing was done. On top of that, according to Joe, once people in town found out, they thought he was trying to destroy the team’s reputation. “The swim team is so prestigious that people viewed me speaking out about it as a negative for the community as a whole,” he says.

It was frustrating for Joe, but fortunately, as awareness about hazing grows, this type of response is becoming far less common. At most schools, there is a zero-tolerance policy for students who are caught hazing, and the punishment can range from getting kicked out of the club or team or losing college scholarships, to serving jail time—44 states now have anti-hazing laws.

A Lasting Impression

Joe realized things weren’t going to get better, so he quit the team. In early 2012, his junior year, he decided to sue the school district, and the lawsuit is still in progress. (School officials declined to comment.) But Joe didn’t let his hazing experience ruin his love for sports. After quitting the swim team, he made the tennis team. “It was the best sports experience I’ve ever had,” he says. “The people were great, the coach was supportive—it allowed me to rebuild a base of friends and restart my high school career.”

And this past summer, Joe trained for and competed in a triathlon, finishing second in his age bracket. He printed the logo of a Facebook group he started, Make Hazing Stop, on his shirt. “By going public with my experience, I was able to overcome my shame from being hazed,” Joe says. “I showed myself, and others, that you can come back stronger.”

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