Hazing has been an integral part of student life on college and university campuses for more than 100 years in the United States. Hazing practices are most prevalent in membership rituals for collegiate fraternal organizations and intercollegiate sports. Although, historically, hazing incidents were confined to institutions of higher learning, this phenomenon has also permeated secondary schools. This entry discusses the increase in hazing practices and summarizes related laws and court rulings.
In recent years, reports of hazing practices in secondary schools have risen to alarming levels. According to experts, 1.5 million high school students are victims of hazing each year in the United States. Not surprisingly, the heightened presence of hazing in secondary schools is of great concern to many parents and educators. Insofar as secondary school students are within the developmental stages of adolescence, they are more vulnerable to peer pressure, thereby making them highly susceptible to becoming victims of hazing. Hazing, which may be defined as “any activity expected of someone that joins a group, which humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers its victims,” varies in scope from minor initiation rites such as washing a car to potentially dangerous activities such as binge drinking. Hazing practices in secondary schools mirror those in collegiate environments by requiring students to participate in specified activities as a prerequisite for membership or peer acceptance into various student groups and athletic teams.
The unsettled legal landscape regarding school hazing has contributed to a growing consensus among policymakers, educators, and parents calling for the creation of a federal antihazing statute. There is currently no uniform federal law that addresses hazing practices in K–12 settings. Accordingly, school administrators and hazing victims must rely on state antihazing laws to address hazing incidents. The application of state antihazing laws in K–12 settings is often problematic, for a variety of reasons.
First, not all 50 states have enacted antihazing legislation. It is difficult to assert hazing liability claims in states that do not have antihazing statutes, because victims are forced to seek relief under tort or constitutional law, which are often inadequate venues for successful claims. Presently, more than 40 states have adopted antihazing statutes, with Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Wyoming being the exceptions. States with criminal antihazing statutes typically classify hazing as a criminal misdemeanor offense and impose a penalty ranging from 10 to 365 days of jail time and fines between $10 and $10,000.
Some states, such as Alabama, South Carolina, and Texas, have criminal antihazing laws that impute criminal liability to school personnel who observe but fail to report hazing incidents. In McMillan v. Broward County School Board (2003), an appellate court in Florida ruled that a school board lacked the authority to discipline a high school baseball coach for misconduct and immorality as a result of a hazing incident that occurred on a school trip because there was no evidence that he knew or should have known that it occurred.
Hazing statutes in some states mandate not only that school personnel report known incidents of hazing but also that they implement proactive measures in their schools to prevent hazing. Statutory requirements that increase the role and responsibilities of school personnel in hazing prevention suggest a shift in the educational milieu toward increased school staff accountability for hazing in these states.
Another variance among state antihazing statutes is that some statutes apply exclusively to college students, as opposed to students attending secondary schools. Prosecutors are typically reluctant to pursue hazing charges against students in states in which there is no specific law forbidding such activities. Further, state antihazing laws vary in relation to whether hazing victims may pursue criminal penalties, as opposed to civil liability. Last, many states have different definitions regarding what constitutes hazing for liability purposes. Some recognize physical harm only, while others recognize mental aspects.
Legal defenses to hazing also vary among states. Common defenses for hazing that are borrowed from tort law are assumption of risk, consent, and sovereign immunity. Currently, only a small number of states permit the assumption of risk defense in hazing cases. The doctrine of assumption of risk is predicated on the notion that plaintiffs may not recover for their injuries when they had knowledge of the dangerous condition and voluntarily exposed themselves to the danger. In relation to consent as a defense to hazing, the majority of states clearly articulate in their antihazing statutes that the use of consent, whether implied or express, to participate in the hazing ritual may not be used as a defense for the accused.
Sovereign immunity, another affirmative defense to hazing, shields government employees such as school personnel from liability for actions that they take in the course of their official duties. Some states restrict the use of sovereign immunity as a defense in situations in which an employee acted recklessly or with malice.
In the years to come, it is likely that stakeholders in education will continue to face endemic challenges as they struggle to dismantle the hazing epidemic that is infiltrating America’s schools. The lack of policy development around this issue, coupled with the wide range of disparities among state laws, makes deterring hazing practices in secondary schools a formidable task for many school administrators. As the severity and frequency of hazing incidents continues to rise in secondary schools, it is likely that a uniform federal antihazing law will emerge. Until then, school administrators must rely on the legal parameters within their individual states as a framework for addressing and deterring hazing practices within their schools.
Laura R. McNeal
See also Bullying; Negligence