Hazing: its history and its deadly outcomes

National Hazing Prevention Week (NHPW) starts on September 23 and is a week-long opportunity for college campuses, schools, communities, organizations and individuals to raise awareness about hazing, educate others and promote hazing prevention on a national level.

Photo via Anti-Hazing Education

Sponsored by HazingPrevention.Org, the week happens annually during the last full week in September and gives students and other alike the ability to come together and talk about the problem of hazing. 

But, for those who might not be in organizations where they have the chance of being hazed, what is hazing anyways, and how did it get its start? 

Photo via Total Frat Move

Most people associate hazing with out of control fraternities and sororities that force their new members to drink alcohol until they have to be hospitalized, and while that is definitely a type of hazing that occurs across college campuses around the country, that’s not how hazing got its start, and it’s definitely not the only way a person can be hazed. 

Merriam-Webster defines hazing as, “an initiation process involving harassment” and cites that its first known usage for that particular definition was in 1850. 

However, according to a piece by Gavin Klinger for Medium, hazing is not a recent phenomenon.

“Believe it or not but hazing started back in Greek times. It can be traced back to Plato,” he writes. “It all started with the founding of his school Plato’s Academy way back in 387 B.C.” 

“The School of Athens” by Raphael

During those times hazing was called pennalism, which means “a system of mild oppression and torment practiced upon first year students…” according to Collins Dictionary.

We know, just from Plato’s critiques of the practices, that “pennalism” was “practical jokes play by unruly young men that injured the hazed and citizens who got in the way.”

 Eventually, as this “pennalism” continued on through society throughout the Middle Ages and into the early days of the United States, mainly in male groups, it evolved into what we know today as hazing—specifically in Greek letter organizations.  

Mortimer N. Leggett/Photo via Hazing Deaths Database

According to author Hank Nuwer who runs the Hazing Deaths Database, one of the first, most well-known Greek hazing deaths occurred at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and involved the Kappa Alpha Society, a men’s fraternity that still flourishes today.

 Mortimer N. Leggett was forced to walk in the dark, his family claims he was also blindfolded, in order to become a part of the all-male organization. Leggett ended up falling into a steep gorge, along with two other pledges, and dying from his injuries.  

When looking through the database, up until 1970, all the incidents involved males and fraternities. There were not any recorded sorority deaths; however, sororities are not exempt from hazing, and it can and does occur in female organizations, as well. 

Photo via Hazing Deaths Database

In 1970 at Eastern Illinois University, Donna Bedinger, a sister of Alpha Gamma Delta, died during a prank abduction while she was pledging the sorority. Bedinger was attempting to jump onto the bumping of a moving car while her sisters were trying to leave her in the countryside as a joke. 

While her death was ruled accidental by authorities, without the fake kidnapping, that can definitely be classified as hazing, would she have died in the first place? 

Fifteen years later at the University of Colorado, Sherri Ann Clark’s blood-alcohol content was three times the legal limit which led to her falling to her death at a sorority party hosted by the organization she was pledging, Kappa Alpha Theta. 

Again, at the time, hazing was not ruled as a factor that played into her death; however, due to the fact that she was given too much alcohol as a new member, we know that it was. 

Naturally, I wanted to learn about more hazing instances involving sororities, because I feel like when you hear about hazing it usually involves fraternities, so I headed over to Cosmopolitan, because where else is a girl going to go to get some information? 

Clark’s death was one that really resonated with me because it seemed to be one of the first ones on the database that is almost identical to the hazing incidents and consequent deaths that occur on college campuses today.

I ran across an article entitled, “The 13 Most Nightmarish Tales of Sorority Hazing,” and I knew I had hit the jackpot. 

Reading through this list and just only learning snippets of information about truly awful hazing incidents, I really couldn’t wrap my head around what some of these girls had to go through in order to be seen as a member of an organization. 

Kappa Kappa Gamma at Dartmouth College/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In an article by Ravital Segal from the Huffington Post, during her new member period in Kappa Kappa Gamma at Darmouth College, she was around one sip of alcohol away from losing her life. 

Segal said she was really happy with her decision to rush and pledge as a sophomore, until one fateful night. 

“I was blindfolded with two of my fellow pledges. We were guided into the backseat of a car and one of our future sisters commanded us to chug the alcoholic punch that had been pre-prepared for each of us in individual 64-ounce water bottle,” she recounts. “Simultaneously, I was handed numerous shots from the older sister sitting in the front seat. Things happened quickly.” 

Segal said that she couldn’t have been in the car for more than 15 minutes but that after she exited the vehicle, she has no recollection of what happened that night. 

The next thing she said she remembers is waking up in the Intensive Care Unit at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center with three other girls who were pledging and had overdosed on alcohol due to hazing rituals. 

Segal describes she was cut up and bruised, had two broken teeth and was intubated and restrained. 

 “The doctor informed me that I had entered the hospital with a .399 blood alcohol content,” she recalls. “I soon learned that a .4 BAC is coma and death. I was literally one sip of alcohol away from dying.” 

But Segal’s situation is just one type of hazing incidents that occur. There have been cases across the country of girls being violated both physically and sexually in order to be granted access into the sorority they decided to pledge.

Jordan Hankins/ AP Photo; Darron Cummings

Just this year, a mother of a student at Northwestern University filed a lawsuit against Alpha Kappa Alpha claiming that alleged hazing contributed to her daughter’s depression and ultimately led to her committing suicide. 

Jordan Hankins, who was 19 at the time, was found dead in her dorm room in January of 2017. Besides being a student and sorority women, she was also a member of the women’s basketball team. 

The lawsuit claims, “While post-initiation pledging, Jordan Hankins was subjected to physical abuse including paddling, verbal abuse, mental abuse, financial exploitation, sleep deprivation, items being thrown and dumped on her, and other forms of hazing intended to humiliate and demean her.” 

I find it incredibly scary that hazing can contribute to suicide, but it makes sense because of the psychological damage it causes people.

In this video by Cynthia Huynh Hauth, she goes into detail of how she was hazed in her sorority and encourages others to report when they are hazed and to tell other people when it’s occurring. 

Just judging from what I know to be common sense, you should ALWAYS report hazing incidents when they occur. Most of the time it’s anonymous and fairly easy to do. 

For example, at my school, West Virginia University, there is a form you can fill out online that makes hazing simple and easy to report. WVU also has strict hazing policies that subjects anyone involved in the incidents to discipline, which most likely means getting expelled. 

West Virginia itself also has a state law against hazing, so if you don’t get in trouble with the University, chances are you could be in significant legal trouble. Many states have laws like these in place.

“But why would I get in trouble?” you might ask. “It’s a ritual, and it’s part of tradition. I had to go through it, so do the new girls.”

This point of view is extremely archaic and just plain wrong. 

Hazing can have dire consequences, and one in five students will experience it during their collegiate career, but it does not have to be part of a tradition to be involved in an organization. Instead of bonding through awful rituals that could lead to legal trouble, why not find other ways such as going and getting lunch together, volunteering at a local nonprofit or even just getting together for a movie night.

Hazing is a practice that is becoming very outdated and significantly frowned upon in society today, and that’s a great thing. No young person needs to lose their life due to the carelessness and cruelty of others. 

So, learn how to stand up against hazing and how to protect others when you see it occurring. If you’re part of any organization, particularly Greek, you can even take a hazing prevention pledge from HazingPrevention.Org. 

As National Hazing Prevention Week is nearly upon us, it’s important to know the history and the consequences of hazing and know how you can be someone who can help stop it altogether. 


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