Recently, I walked into an examination room to find a young man who shouldn't have survived his college fraternity's hazing prank. He was in the ICU on a ventilator when his parents received the dreaded midnight phone call. He was lucky. He was dismissed from his University Hospital, returned to school to finish the semester and escaped without any brain damage.
A month earlier, I heard about another college student who was riding his bicycle home to his apartment when he was kidnapped at gunpoint and thrown into the backseat of a car. He was driven to several ATM machines in an attempt to extract money. He was lucky-- they let him go. But will he or his family ever feel safe again?
When Did It Start?
Hazing, an act against someone in order to initiate the person into an organization, is not new. Schools in ancient Greece and medieval Europe called it pennalism and adopted it as a requirement for graduation. In 1845, Amherst College administrators wrote a letter to the families and parents of students informing them that, "we merely desire you know what dangers attend college life," for students were practicing personal habits that were "unfavorable to study and morality." Professors and college presidents felt they were dealing with students whose behavior was beyond their control. Fast-forward 150 years. Do administrators and parents have similar concerns today?
The sad truth is that a student can graduate from college worse off physically and psychologically than when he or she entered. In an ideal world, in addition to academic learning, college would include a "health benefit." Students would successfully separate fact from fiction about sexual activity, smoking, drinking, risk taking and limit-testing.
Hazing is not just a part of the fraternity and sorority community, but is also deeply embedded in sports, military and service organizations. The premise is that hazing increases group cohesiveness while promoting respect and loyalty for the organization. Supporters of hazing point to these positive attributes and add that hazing often includes maintaining grade point averages, community service, tutoring or fundraising. But, the dark side of hazing is dangerous and can result in physical and psychological damage, even death.
One study revealed that students are neutral about hazing and that their definition is quite narrow, including only extreme forms like beatings or rape. Students may not recognize the psychological abuse involved in their pranks. Besides hazing, many students fail to recognize the risks of their health-related decisions like alcohol consumption, smoking and risky sexual behavior. Many colleges focus on the Greek system and varsity athletics and fail to notice the other campus organizations' activities and health risks.
Like domestic violence, hazing injuries are under-reported because of embarrassment, a desire to protect others, or a desire to be accepted by the organization. But illegal hazing, sexual assaults and alcohol injuries need to be reported for criminal investigation and not just handled by the University.
College life is filled with other dangers. Women are at an increased risk for sexual violence and abuse. Alcohol abuse increases in the transition from high school to college and this can contribute to the sexual victimization of women. For some, binge drinking becomes a way of life. A recent study in Buffalo New York reported that 22% of young women experienced sexual victimization during their freshman year and 38% of these women reported severe sexual victimization. Serious dangers may surround the tranquil ivy lined confines of a college. Students who venture off campus or commute from apartments that are off campus can be at risk. A Justice Department study reported that men were twice as likely as women to be the victim of violent crime and that 58% were committed by strangers, 41% of the offenders were using alcohol or drugs, 93% of the crimes occurred off campus and 72% occurred at night.
What are the Solutions?
The Jeanne Clery Act is named in memory of a 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her residence hall in 1986. As a result of this law, schools are required to report all crimes and violent activities. Unfortunately, statistics alone will not stop the problem, and education is far from enough to stop bad behavior. However, a "zero tolerance" policy is difficult to enforce as students may resist change and do the opposite to protect their own beliefs and opinions. Hazing and injuries often continue despite the fact that colleges have strict regulations to protect their students. In the meantime, here are some common sense tips to share with your college student:
- Know your alcohol limit. Bad things happen when you are intoxicated and you are never quite as attractive or clever as your drunken self believes.
- Sexual abuse against women occurs almost universally under the influence of alcohol and involves someone they know. Limit your drinking.
- Go out in groups, particularly at night. Remember, you may not know the people around you as well as you think you do.
- Be aware of your surroundings. Have your keys out and walk with confidence-- head up and briskly.
- Avoid walking while wearing headphones or using a cell phone, as it distracts you from your environment. I know this can be a hard one!
- Learn to say NO!
- If it feels wrong or uncomfortable, leave.
- Acquire friends outside of your fraternity, sorority or sports team. They will help give you perspective.
- Keep your door locked.
- Take a self defense course.
For most people, college is a wonderful time of intellectual and emotional growth. A few precautions will help keep it that way.
About the Author:
Richard C. Senelick, M.D., is a neurologist who specializes in neurorehabilitation and speaks regularly on both a national and international level. In his 35 years in practice, he has worked with thousands of patients to treat brain injuries, strokes and spinal cord injuries.Today, he serves as Medical Director of RIOSA, The Rehabilitation Institute of San Antonio, and Editor in Chief of HealthSouth Press, the publishing arm of one of the nation's largest hospital systems.
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