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A group of seniors at Glenbrook North High School outside Chicago were caught on tape by a fellow classmate allegedly beating junior girls and covering them with mud, feces, pig entrails, garbage, and paint. Part of an annual powder puff touch football game held between girls in the senior and junior classes as a rite of passage for incoming seniors, the incident caused a firestorm of controversy, bringing the topic of high school hazing into the limelight.

An initiation rite most often associated with fraternities and sororities, hazing isn't a new phenomenon in older kids and young adults. And it could be a problem that's existed, without much media attention, for quite some time in high schools.

Older, often popular kids - or those already accepted in a certain group - pass along "traditions" they likely succumbed to in years past. Those doing the hazing might contend that it's all just a long-lived facet of becoming a part of something - an upper class at school, a sports team, a club, a social group or clique, or even a gang.

Meanwhile, younger kids desiring acceptance just chalk it up to part of going through the ranks of their social crowd, class, or athletic team. Many figure that they have to endure the hazing this year, but that they'll be able to unleash the tradition on others next year.

The annual powder puff football hazing at Glenbrook North High had reportedly been occurring off-campus for years. The latest incident sent five girls to the hospital (one for a broken ankle, another for gashes in her scalp). Twelve girls and three boys allegedly involved were charged with battery, 33 seniors were expelled, and 20 juniors were suspended by the school.

Although the powder puff football game was held off-campus at a local park and the students apparently kept the date and location hush-hush, many are wondering if something could have been done to prevent the annual event from happening again.

What Is Hazing?

Much attention has been paid to the often over-the-top rituals at institutions of higher learning, but little has been reported about why younger kids are putting their peers through these emotional and physical rites of passage.

The end result of hazing is usually embarrassment and demoralization, but that's not always the intention, says child and adolescent psychologist D'Arcy Lyness, PhD. "I don't think that's on anyone's mind as hazing begins," Lyness explains. "Hazing has to do with earning entry - and making it hard to earn entry - into whatever group it is."

Hazing is a way to have people demonstrate their commitment to a group and to show how much they want to be in that club. However, many who go through hazing endure not only embarrassment, but harassment, ridicule, and even injuries that can be severe or life-threatening.

Hazing can include a number of types of mental and physical insults of varying degrees that may not be perceived as abuse or victimization, even by those perpetuating and enduring it.

Although some forms of subtle hazing - being called demeaning names or having to refer to peers as Ms. or Mr. - are seemingly benign, they can still cause feelings of degradation. Emotional distress can come from more serious types of hazing - verbal abuse, public displays in which participants have to wear ridiculous apparel or perform embarrassing stunts, and being required to perform certain duties or menial tasks for others.

But there's a difference between forcing someone to dress up in an embarrassing outfit and being beaten and covered in feces, as in the incident at Glenbrook North High. The effects can be increasingly dangerous when hazing involves risk-taking, being forced to drink excess amounts of alcohol, or physical abuse.

"Perhaps the biggest problem is that the line can get crossed very quickly," Lyness says. "People are relaxing their individual responsibility and judgment and getting peer validation for their actions. The momentum can build quickly and a situation can get out of control."

Why Do "Good" Kids Participate in or Watch Hazing?

In the Illinois hazing incident, a crowd of students reportedly stood by, cheering on the activities as they drank beer. Meanwhile, many of the accused students' parents attested that their daughters are "good girls" and wouldn't do something like this. But why would otherwise nice kids willingly participate in or observe such abusive acts?

"When people are in a group, they often relax individual responsibility, assuming that someone else will act when it's appropriate," Lyness says. "This explains why a group of bystanders often does nothing, but the same individuals might take action if they were the only bystander."

In social situations in which there's uncertainty, people - especially kids - often look to leaders (in the Illinois case, the accused seniors) for cues and social proof about what is and isn't acceptable behavior, says Lyness. Being told what to do and how to participate reduces the discomfort of social uncertainty. The most easily influenced will do what leaders tell them, then others may follow, too. Watching others, kids may think, "It must be OK. Everyone else is doing it. They must know what they're doing."

"Everyone is looking to others and getting peer validation that the correct action is just what everyone else is doing. This might also help explain why no one takes the initiative to stop what's going on, speak up, or take themselves out of the situation," Lyness says.

Although it might seem like kids who haze are the same ones who bully, that's not necessarily the case. Bullying is often an attempt to exclude someone from a group or activity, whereas hazing is an attempt to include someone through an initiation process.

"Bullying is about using uneven power to make yourself feel more powerful at someone else's expense, and many bullies are the kids who lack social conscience," Lyness explains. "But hazing is the difficult rite of passage to earn membership."

Both bullies and hazers can feel a sense of higher power or status. However, bullies exhibit a pattern of intentionally hurting others on repeated occasions; hazers are often simply caught up in a role within a group or team on one occasion or limited occasions, says Lyness. Though some kids who haze may have some of the same characteristics as those who bully, bullying doesn't explain hazing.

What Are Some Alternatives to Hazing?

It might seem contradictory that those who endure hazing would feel allegiance toward a group of people inflicting discomfort - even pain - on them, but Lyness says hazing does, in fact, build commitment, even if it is often an emotionally unhealthy sense of commitment.

"There is a psychological principle that's sometimes referred to as 'commitment and consistency' at work. When a person has put themselves through a difficult rite of passage to become a member, he or she does feel more committed to the group," she says. Going through hazing can make a person believe their actions are consistent with their commitment.

But there are other ways for organized groups or teams to foster unity, commitment, and communication:

  • Plan events in which the whole group, team, or organization attends (such as field trips, retreats, dances, movies, and plays).
  • Participate in team-building activities (for example, visit a ropes course).
  • Plan a social event with another group.
  • Develop a peer mentor program within the group, teaming seasoned members with new members.
  • Work together on a community service project or plan fundraisers for local charitable organizations.

What Can You Do About Hazing?

Anti-hazing laws and policies do exist in most states, as well in many individual schools. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a college or university without a very clear anti-hazing policy in place. But just because there are policies and laws doesn't mean students know about or abide by them. The students involved in the powder puff football incident in Illinois clearly violated Glenbrook North High School's hazing policy, even though the activities occurred off-campus.

Students - and even parents - may dismiss annual hazing-oriented rites as good old tradition, silly fun, or harmless high jinks. But this mentality could only perpetuate a problem that, Lyness says, shouldn't be overlooked. "No one intends the harm that sometimes happens at hazing rituals, but the same is true for bullying - often adults minimize it as a normal childhood behavior, and it can have harmful consequences."

Even the most benign types of hazing can easily go awry, turning ugly and sometimes dangerous, says Lyness. But there are steps you, as a parent, can take to help prevent your child from ever having to endure this type of hazing:

  • Educate yourself about your state's anti-hazing laws (all but seven states have some sort of law applying to schools, colleges, universities, and other educational institutions). Some schools - and states - may group hazing and bullying together in policies and laws.
  • Make sure your child's school and/or district has clearly defined policies that prohibit hazing, is taking measures to proactively prevent hazing from occurring, and is acting immediately with repercussions when hazing does occur.
  • Ask your parent-teacher association and/or school administrators to invite a local law-enforcement official to speak to parents and/or the student body about hazing and the state's anti-hazing law.
  • Work with school personnel and student leaders to create powerful - and safe - experiences to promote positive alternatives to hazing that would foster cohesion in group, club, and team membership.
  • Talk to other parents - especially those of upperclassmen and your child's sports teammates - about what their children may have seen or experienced. If you know that the problem exists at your child's school, you'll be better prepared to discuss it with your child, fellow parents, and school officials.
  • Cliched as it is, have the "if everyone else was jumping off the bridge, would you do it, too?" conversation with your child, Lyness advises. Talk about why your child shouldn't feel pressured to participate in anything, even if "everyone else is doing it" or "it's always been done this way."

    Talk specifically about hazing and what your child would do in a hypothetical hazing situation. Discuss how the group mentality can sometimes cause people to wait for someone else to do the right thing, stop something dangerous, speak out, etc.

    "Discuss the topic in a way that doesn't lecture or tell your child what to think or do. It's better to ask kids to tell you what they would do, or what they think about it," Lyness encourages. "Kids are more committed to the ideas they state themselves, so get them to actively state their own values and ideas to you. Let your child know that often it just takes one person to speak out or take different action to change a situation. Others will follow if someone has the courage to be first to do something different, or to be first to refuse to go along with the group. Allow kids to consider themselves leaders, and to know that they have the potential to make a difference."

  • Explain to your child that physical and mental abuse, no matter how harmless it may seem, isn't part of becoming a member of the in crowd or a specific group, and that it may even be against the law. Emphasize the importance of telling you and an adult at school whenever another kid or group of kids causes your child or anyone else physical harm.
  • If your child has experienced hazing, talk to school officials immediately. If physical abuse was involved, talk to your local law-enforcement agency. Though he or she may be unwilling or may feel uneasy about "telling on" peers, get precise details from your child about the incident - who, what, when, where, and how.

Above all, maintain open communication with your child. Always ask what's going on at school, what peers are doing, and what pressures are present - physically, academically, and socially. Encourage your child to come to you in any uncomfortable situation, big or small.

Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: June 2003