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Can hazing be stopped once and for all?

timoty piazza AP

The family of University of Pennsylvania student Timothy Piazza laments his death as a result of fraternity hazing. ASSOCIATED PRESS

The harshest law won’t scare fraternity members into stopping  the practice of hazing. No one, not even Presidents Trump and Duterte, or the head of the United Nations, can stop initiation rite deaths in universities. It’s all part of human nature; it’s rooted in psychology.

Various institutions (and disciplines) have called for an end to hazing, calls often triggered by abuses committed during the activity. The latest event is the “permanent banning of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity from Penn State, and strict new rules for Greek organizations on campus.”


This was triggered by the death of Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old student who died because his “own friends failed to get help for him for many hours”; Piazza fell multiple times down a stairway after consuming toxic levels of alcohol during a fraternity rite.

“Heart-wrenching and incomprehensible – 18 fraternity members charged,” according to the Washington Post. A glimpse into the psychology of hazing would show why hazing is a seasonal-vicious-cycle.

Greek-letter societies

Hazing, simply defined, is initiation by exacting humiliating performances on the newbie or a would-be member of a group, from playing rough practical jokes or physical abuse that could lead to more grim consequences.

On a winter night, Frederick Bronner, a California junior college student, was taken 3,000 feet up and 10 miles into the hills of a national forest. Left to find his way home, wearing only a thin sweatshirt and slacks, Fat Freddy, as he was called, shivered in a frigid wind until he tumbled down a steep ravine, fracturing bones and hurting his head. Due to sustained injuries, he huddled there against the cold, dying of exposure.

At Kappa Sigma house, University of Southern California (USC), the eyes of 11 pledges bulged when they saw the sickening task before them. Eleven quarter-pounds of raw liver lay on a tray. Thick cut and soaked in oil, each was to be swallowed whole, one to a boy. Gagging and choking repeatedly, young Richard Swanson failed three times to down his piece. A determined pledge, he finally got the oil-soaked meat into his throat where it lodged and, despite all efforts to remove it, choked him to death.


A pledge of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity was taken to a beach area of New Jersey and told to dig his “own grave.” Seconds after he complied with orders to lie flat in the finished hole, the sides collapsed, suffocating him before his prospective fraternity brothers could dig him out.

Rite of passage

Hazing is meant to be a “rite of passage,” a transition from one stage to another often marked by a ritual or ceremony entailing basic human behavioral follies.


It seems incomprehensible that students blessed with so much material and intellectual abundance would willingly and happily conspire to inflict pain on a friend through hazing. Fraternity rites are often brutal, mimicking primitive practices.

In Tonga for instance, a boy is required to go through an elaborate initiation ceremony before he is counted as a man-member of the tribe. He has to endure a great deal of pain and suffering. The hazing mystery could be rooted in this practice. This initiation is a three-month ceremonial ordeal, depicted several decades ago by anthropologists Whiting, Kluckhohn, and Anthony:

When a boy is somewhere between 10 and 16 years of age, his parents send him to “circumcision school,” which is held every four to five years. The initiation begins when the boy runs a gauntlet, two rows of men who beat him with clubs. His clothes are stripped and he is made bald at the end of the rite.

He is next met by a man covered with lion manes, seated upon a stone. As he faces this “lion man,” someone from behind strikes him; when he turns his head to see the striker, his foreskin is seized, cut off in two movements by the “lion man.” He is afterward secluded for three months in the “yard of mysteries,” where only the initiated could see him.

During the course of his initiation, the boy undergoes six major trials: beating; exposure to cold; thirst; eating of unsavory foods; punishment; and the threat of death, all quite similar to contemporary fraternity hazing practices.


Many have the impression that members of Greek-letter societies are composed of psychological or social miscreants whose twisted minds demand to be gratified with some sadistic-sociopathic acts inflicted on another human being.

However, the evidence shows otherwise. A study conducted by C. S. Johnson a few decades ago showed that “the personality traits of fraternity members show them to be, if anything, slightly healthier than other college students in their psychological adjustment.”

Moreover, “members become aberrantly harsh as a group at only one time: immediately before the admission of a new pledge to the fraternity.” The evidence thus seems to point to the ceremony itself as the culprit, where some kind of collective rigor vital to the group inexplicably comes to the fore.


In the Philippines, a law was enacted in 1995 classifying death due to hazing as a heinous crime; meaning anyone found guilty of it can be meted life imprisonment. Has this deterred would-be-hazing practitioners? Not at all, it seems.

Various institutions and administrations have tried threats, social pressures, legal actions, banishment, bribes and bans to persuade or even coerce groups to remove hazards and humiliations from their initiation ceremonies. None has been successful.

Many American colleges have tried to eliminate dangerous practices by taking direct control of the initiation rites. Fraternities do not only slyly circumvent such attempts, they are often met with outright physical resistance.

In the aftermath of Richard Swanson’s choking death at USC in 1988, the university president issued new rules — requiring school authorities review all pledging activities and that adult advisers be present during initiation ceremonies. According to one national magazine: “…The new ‘code’ set off a riot so violent, that city police and fire detachments were afraid to enter campus.”

How effective will be the “permanent banning of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity from Pennsylvania State, and strict new rules for Greek organizations on campus?”

Quo Vadis?

The 18 fraternity members charged in Penn State hazing death may all be proven guilty, expelled, tried and go to prison; will this halt hazing among groups of men?

Hazing is a universal activity, and every bit of evidence points to this conclusion that no one will likely be able to ban it effectively. Refuse to allow it openly and it will go underground. You cannot ban sex, prohibit alcohol (and now cannabis), and you likely cannot eliminate hazing.

Hazing is a rite of passage. It is a human folly, which is an integral part of human behavior. We are reminded that “the distant galaxies are more amenable to scientific study than is human behavior.”

Dr. Aggie Carson-Arenas is a Clinical Psychology and a Behavior Analyst specialist in Nevada, a clinician, educator, researcher, consultant and a published author.

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TAGS: Beta Theta Pi, fraternities, Greek-letter societies, hazing, hazing deaths, initiation rites, Kappa Sigma, opinion, rites of passage, stopping hazing, Timothy Piazza, Zeta Beta Tau
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