Hazing incidents spark questions for sororities

Allegations of waterboarding and branding at Norwich University are among the latest, and perhaps most shocking, hazing incidents of the school year. And despite increased efforts by colleges and states to crack down on hazing, experts say the practice remains prevalent.

At Norwich University, a 22-year-old student and member of the women’s rugby team was recently found intoxicated and covered in urine. According to local media reports, the student was also “branded” with pliers and a lighter. In investigating the incident, local law enforcement uncovered a video showing three women involved in what officers described as a form of waterboarding.

Though a Norwich University spokesperson said the military college has “fully cooperated” with law enforcement, local officials suggest otherwise. Rory Thibault, state attorney for Washington County, told VT Digger There’s “a difference … between being cooperative and being helpful.”

The jarring headlines out of Norwich University come around the same time that Bowling Green State University made news by permanently banning the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority for “severe hazing activity” that dates back to the fall of 2020 but wasn’t uncovered until late last year .

At Bowling Green, Sigma Gamma Rho was found to have engaged in hazing that included forced alcohol and cannabis consumption, pressure to steal, and physical violence. The sanctions come a little over a year after a Bowling Green student died in a fraternity hazing incident. The fraternity involved in that incident, Pi Kappa Alpha, was permanently banned in April 2021.

“Hazing has no place at BGSU,” spokesperson Alex Solis said in an emailed statement Monday. “We are grateful for the individuals who leveraged reporting systems already in place to ensure a tragedy like the death of student Stone Foltz never happens again. Our campus community is stronger when we work together to eradicate this dangerous and concerning behavior.”

While hazing may conjure up scenes from frat house movies, experts—and recent events—suggest that such activities are hardly limited to men on campus. And recent show trends that women are more using alcohol in the hazing process, which often leads to dangerous incidents.

Women Hazing Women

There’s no central database for tracking incidents, but researchers note that hazing has been fairly consistent on college campuses over the years. And while men typically grab most of the headlines, women experience hazing, too, though often in different ways.

“Most of the research around hazing tends to suggest that fraternities are more likely to be involved,” said Pietro Sasso, a professor of educational leadership at Stephen F. Austin State University and a faculty research fellow at the Piazza Center at Pennsylvania State University.

But hazing still frequently occurs in sororities, he said. And how women haze their female peers seems to be changing, according to data from the Piazza Center, which provides research on Greek life to enhance the safety of such organizations. (The Piazza Center is named for Timothy Piazza, a Penn State sophomore who died in 2017 after being hazed while pledging a fraternity.)

“We’re seeing more alcohol use in women’s hazing practices, which is not something we saw before,” Sasso said. “And then with men, we’re seeing more violent forms of hazing.”

Men and women often have different reasons for participating in hazing, he said.

“Our research at the Piazza Center suggests that women are more likely to engage in hazing for conformity and for identity, and men are more likely to participate in hazing to prove masculinity,” Sasso said. “But the overall theme is that they want group affiliation and a sense of belonging.”

Gentry McCreary conducts research on Greek life as part of his role as CEO of Dyad Strategies, a higher education consulting firm. In his observations, sororities and fraternities haze at roughly the same rates, but women are less likely to engage in dangerous behavior.

“With fraternities, you definitely see more high-risk, more dangerous type behavior. You’re more likely to see forced consumption of alcohol, for example, more likely to see physical abuse than females,” McCreary said. “But when you look at the prevalence of hazing, broadly, females are still engaged in the behavior; They just tend to do it in ways that are less likely to get the group in trouble or make headlines. You hear less about it because there tend to be fewer incidents—it’s more emotional, more psychological and less often results in arrests, injuries or death.”

The Pandemic Effect

Hank Nuwer, a recently retired journalism professor, has tracked hazing deaths since 1975. In the absence of a centralized database, there’s Nuwer’s Unofficial Hazing Clearinghouse.

Nuwer’s website shows hazing deaths stretching back all the way to 1838. From 1959 to 2019, there were hazing deaths at colleges every year—a streak that pandemic finally ended in 2020, when the coronavirus largely closed campuses, forcing students into online classes.

“In terms of fatalities, one consistent trackable fact is that there was a hazing death every year from 1959 to 2019,” Nuwer told Inside Higher Ed by email. “There were none in 2020 but students largely were learning by Zoom. Deaths occurred again in 2021, and with several violent and alcohol-related hazings of late, I worry we’ll see more deaths in fall 2022.”

Just because there were no deaths during the pandemic doesn’t mean hazing stopped; like everything else, it just shifted. Experts note that hazing moved largely online, taking the form of cyberbullying. Some fraternities and sororities also moved their activities off campus, where there was less oversight.

“It didn’t necessarily reduce hazing as much as students found new ways to engage in hazing,” Sasso said.

Sasso, who co-authored an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed last year on the likelihood of increased drinking and hazing when colleges reopened, said it’s too soon to tell what effect the pandemic has had now that students are back on campus and returning to normal life.

McCreary noted that students who joined Greek life and other organizations during the pandemic may have skipped hazing rituals, so now members will likely go through those rites of passage. Additionally, with the coronavirus pushing higher education into a world of constant change, students may see hazing as a way to assert more control over their organizations.

“For whatever reason, COVID and the shutdowns and everything that’s happened over the last couple of years really changed student attitudes around the importance of a new member process that’s designed to reinforce a hierarchy, and that you have to earn your way in by being subservient at the bottom end of that hierarchy as you become acclimated to the organization,” McCreary said.

Consequences of Hazing

Drawing on his research, Nuwer suggests “hazing has always been around” at Norwich. He points to violent hazing incidents there in 2008 and a “toxic culture” that’s still in place.

“If you have a culture where manliness and female toughness are going to be rewarded and veterans say, ‘We’ve got a good one,’ hazing is going to flourish,” Nuwer said.

He and others also note the prevalence of alcohol in such incidents. In the most severe hazing cases, particularly those that end in injury or death, alcohol is often a factor.

“The more we can reduce alcohol use, the less likely they are to engage in hazing with alcohol,” Sasso said. “So it won’t stop hazing, but it’ll reduce the alcohol use in the hazing process, which is how most students die or get injured during the hazing process. If you look at all of the hazing cases where there has been a student death, almost all of them involve alcohol in some way.”

Despite increased parental activism, hazing remains a staple of college life, popping up in fraternities and sororities, in athletic teams, and in various other student organizations. Oftentimes, the consequences vary according to state law, meaning there is no standard for punishing hazing.

Some states—such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia—have introduced laws to crack down on hazing. But Nuwer notes that universities also have a responsibility to act, just as Bowling Green did in expelling a fraternity and a sorority for hazing. He also pointed to the University of Vermont, which canceled an entire hockey season after its men’s team was caught up in a hazing scandal years ago.

Experts say such consequences, along with continuing education, are important. And as state laws and concerned parents take a stronger stand against hazing, universities are taking notice.

“What I’ve seen in recent years is that there’s less and less tolerance,” McCreary said. “Things that 10 years ago may have warranted a slap on the wrist or a mild sanction are now being taken much more seriously. Chapters are much more likely to be closed or have recognition withdrawn for seemingly minor or less serious hazing cases than they were a decade ago.”

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