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Above the pressure to belong

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High school students feel such a strong need to "fit in" that they allow themselves to be publicly embarrassed, go without food or sleep, engage in drinking contests, use illegal drugs, vandalize property, or suffer beatings or rape.

With students back in classrooms, high school hazing is finally on the agendas of American educators. Articles in Teen People and the American School Board Journal tell horror stories of physical abuse and intimidation. Hank Nuwer's recent book "High School Hazing" (Franklin Watts Inc.) documents an escalating pattern of abuse and even death, as students who join groups are forced to submit to ridicule and sometimes dangerous and illegal acts.

Hazing was once linked in the public mind with college fraternities and sororities, but it is clearly a much broader problem. A 1999 survey of initiation rites in NCAA college teams, conducted by Alfred University, found that 42 percent of athletes hazed in college had also been hazed in high school. Five percent had even been hazed as early as middle school.

Following up this lead, the university published a new study this month of high school hazing, the first research to establish the prevalence of hazing in high schools. The study projects that each year, some 1.5 million American high school students undergo some form of humiliating or dangerous activity when they join a group.

Hazing practices, illegal in all but eight states, can range from social isolation and being yelled or sworn at to being held head-first in a toilet or being forced into high-risk sex.

The victims' consent is irrelevant. Consent given under pressure is not really consent, and the peer pressure - along with the desire - to join groups is strong.

In high schools, nearly half the students joining a group reported being forced to engage in some form of humiliating or dangerous behavior. Hazing was most frequent in sports groups. But it was reported in peer groups and gangs, cheerleading squads, fraternities and sororities, vocational groups, music, art, and theater organizations - even church groups. No one was immune, although newspaper and yearbook staffs had the lowest levels of hazing.

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