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Hazing is shrouded in secrecy. Now is the time to start the conversation.

Photo of lit chandelier over wooden table in Firestone Tower at night
Looking up at Firestone Tower's chandelier.
Kaylee Kasper / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the author's views alone. For information on how to submit a piece to the Opinion section, click here.

Content Warning: This piece includes graphic descriptions of bodily harm.

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In December 2022, 27 Princeton students were charged and later found responsible for violations of the University hazing policy that occurred during a fraternity initiation. The three students who organized the events had their degrees withheld or were placed on a two-year suspension. The 24 students who attended the events received suspensions and disciplinary probations.

The following spring semester started with my roommate returning from winter break and asking me, “Did you hear what happened with [the fraternity in question]? I’ve heard rumors that they were suspended for hazing.” In the following weeks, seemingly every upperclass student seemed to form an opinion of the incident based on the various rumors they had encountered. Some were shocked to learn that fraternity hazing existed at Princeton. Others argued that the fraternity did nothing beyond normal pledging activities, and that other fraternities have done worse. 

I was certain that, in typical fashion, Princeton would issue a statement about the incident, and that the Daily Princetonian would soon be flooded with opinion pieces discussing hazing on campus and the administration’s handling of the case. As time went on, however, it became clear that there would be no public acknowledgment of what seemed to be one of the biggest student incidents to occur in my time at Princeton.

A student who was familiar with the fraternity involved in the recent incident, but who was not a member, alleged that fraternity practices included burning each other with cigarettes, cutting each other, and pouring hot sauce on the wounds. They were granted anonymity to protect their privacy. 

As I later discovered, New Jersey recently adopted a new anti-hazing law to increase transparency surrounding hazing. Yet, the only time Princeton publicly commented on the incident was in its legally mandatory report of hazing violations. Princeton reported it as “events where new members … were made to participate in physically and emotionally demeaning and/or dangerous conduct that placed the new members at a substantial risk of physical injury and other harms, and which resulted in physical injury to some new members.”

A combination of haphazard adherence, lack of awareness, and perverse incentives for University administrators means that hazing remains shrouded in secrecy on Princeton’s campus and beyond — and students suffer the consequences. 

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What exactly is hazing?

Hazing generally refers to any initiation process for new members, especially that of fraternities and sororities. However, safe and non-degrading initiations do not legally constitute hazing. New Jersey law defines hazing as knowingly or recklessly inducing someone to engage in activities that violate the law, risk their physical or emotional health, involve physical, emotional, mental, or sexual abuse, or could likely result in bodily injury, regardless of the consent of the parties.

Examples of hazing, according to University policy, include acts that could result in physical, psychological, or emotional deprivation or harm, ingestion of any undesirable substance such as alcohol, food, or drugs, participation in sexual rituals or assaults, and participation in illegal activities.

The New Jersey anti-hazing law mandating Princeton to publish this report was passed, in part, to help fight the secrecy surrounding hazing. Yet, few questions surrounding the recent fraternity story have been answered. 

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Anti-hazing law: A step in the right direction

In 2017, the death of Timothy Piazza, a New Jersey resident studying at Penn State, sent shockwaves through communities across both states. At a fraternity hazing event, Piazza drank heavily and fell down the stairs, losing consciousness and rupturing a spleen. His fraternity brothers were reluctant to call for help for over 12 hours, after which doctors were unable to save him.

Piazza’s death led New Jersey to adopt its new anti-hazing law in August 2021, known as the “Timothy J. Piazza Anti Hazing Law” (S84/2093). It became one of the strictest in the country and was widely praised by hazing prevention advocates for its clear definition of hazing, the harsh penalties it listed, and the University reporting requirements it mandated. 

However, despite the enactment of this law, hazing-related accidents continued, as evidenced by an incident that occurred at Rutgers University in March 2022. Armand Runte, a freshman at Rutgers, suffered a skull fracture during a fraternity hazing event and experienced a prolonged delay in receiving medical help. Runte accused Rutgers of intentionally neglecting to address the issue of hazing at the university.

Furthermore, to increase transparency surrounding hazing, the law mandated that New Jersey universities must publicly disclose hazing incidents on a biannual basis, and must retrospectively disclose all incidents that have occurred since 2017. 

In an investigation analyzing hazing violation reports for universities in New Jersey, the ‘Prince’ found reports for only 10 out of 25 public and private universities, including Princeton, reflecting an adherence rate of 40 percent. 

The investigation also reveals that among the universities that have complied, hazing cases are likely vastly underreported, and the descriptions of the violations are often vague. Additionally, in a survey of student opinions on hazing at Princeton, the vast majority of surveyed students report being unaware that Princeton publishes reports in the first place. 

Hazing reports do exist for some universities, but they often reveal very little

The reports that do exist paint a dark picture of hazing in New Jersey, showing that events have involved beatings, strandings in remote locations, and have led to physical injuries.

The Piazza law requires universities to include details such as the date of the violation, a general description, investigation findings, imposed penalties, and the resolution date in their hazing reports. However, universities have considerable freedom in deciding the level of detail they disclose.

The majority of reports are incredibly vague. Rutgers, for example, concisely reported Runte’s story of suffering severe brain damage as “Abuse/Endangerment/Hazing.” 

Transparency from universities can impact students’ decisions to join particular organizations. In an interview, David Bianchi, an attorney who helped write Florida’s anti-hazing law, said that “universities should be required to publish this data because there is no other place for parents of college students to get the information … If you don’t place this data in one central location, there is no place for either prospective fraternity pledges or the parents to get the information.”

Additionally, according to a New Jersey attorney specializing in hazing cases, who wished to remain anonymous, the scale of the problem is likely to be much larger than what is revealed by the reports. 

“I recall in the past few years we probably had about 200 people reach out about what I would call hazing cases … and that’s just us. I mean, we’re obviously on the larger side, but we’re not the only firm,” he said in an interview with me. The attorney estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people a year reach out to attorneys with hazing cases in New Jersey. 

On a national scale, the National Study of Student Hazing found that 95 percent of students who experience hazing do not report the incidents to campus officials. Moreover, many cases that universities do become aware of are not made public. 

Bianchi said that universities often conduct a secret disciplinary process, claiming student privacy as justification. He also pointed out that universities have their own incentive to be secretive: in order to protect their reputation and avoid bad press. 

At Princeton, the penalties for hazing are determined internally by the Committee on Discipline (COD), which is responsible for handling “serious non-academic misconduct; [and] for assessing reported violations.” 

Hazing extends beyond fraternities and sororities. The National Study of Student Hazing found that athletic teams experience hazing incidents at a higher rate than Greek organizations. Accordingly, the New Jersey anti-hazing law mandates that universities report hazing violations across all types of student organizations, not solely within Greek life.

However, in response to our questions, some universities claimed that their Greek Life Chapter Status page or Greek Life Disciplinary History report satisfies the reporting requirement — which, of course, overlooks hazing incidents that occur outside of fraternities and sororities.

In my opinion, students cannot be reasonably expected to make informed decisions about joining student groups without access to detailed information on past incidents. It is especially true for Greek life, where pledging can last for months and typically intensifies as time passes. In my conversations with fraternity members for this article, some have expressed that if they knew what pledging would entail, they would not have joined in the first place. If a student does not mind the first few months of pledging but later discovers that activities are crossing the line into abuse, it might already be too late to drop out without substantial social ramifications.

Students and even some administrators aren’t aware that hazing reports exist

I sent out a survey to Butler, Forbes, Mathey, and Whitman residential colleges at Princeton. Responses from 60 students reveal that 96 percent of students aren’t aware that hazing reports exist or are legally required, and none have ever tried to look up Princeton’s hazing reports.

The lack of awareness is not confined to students. A Greek life coordinator at a New Jersey public university that has not published a hazing report spoke to me about their experience. 

“Personally, I wasn’t familiar with the report — I’m gonna be honest. So when I saw your email, I was like, ‘I know down South [in South Carolina, a state they previously worked in] we did this. I wasn’t familiar that in New Jersey we were doing this,’” the coordinator said.

“[It’s] funny because ... when I came to this institution [in New Jersey] … I asked my supervisor … ‘Hey, do you think it’s a benefit if we start posting [the report] on our website because, you know, we post like our 5-star chapters, our chapters that aren’t doing well … but not incidents,’” the coordinator said. “At the time, I was told no because there wasn’t an actual law for it.” The coordinator started to work at the university after the law was passed.

Typically, the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education (OSHE) is responsible for implementing New Jersey laws connected to postsecondary education. However, when asked to comment on whether it enforces NJ Rev Stat § 18A:3-27.4, the law requiring universities to publish violations, OSHE responded in a statement, “[A]s written, this is a law that is implemented and enforced at the local level, and OSHE does not have a role in this area.”

When probed for further comments, OSHE responded that any criminal aspects of hazing incidents are enforced directly by prosecutors, and “institutions [themselves] enforce non-criminal aspects … Higher education in New Jersey is a highly-autonomous system and the law is a reflection of that. For OSHE to enforce it, the law would need to specifically empower that and it does not.”

In the coordinator’s view, other universities might not comply because they do not have employees specializing in Greek life coordination. “A lot of the schools that you mentioned — it was probably the same thing that happened before I got here. It was people who weren’t necessarily in that area when they had to do the legwork for fraternity and sorority life. So they might not have been privy to the policy,” he said.

Princeton students' opinions on hazing remain mixed, despite ⅕ of seniors participating in Greek Life

The University does not recognize fraternities and sororities because “they do not add in positive ways to the overall residential experience on the campus,” according to Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities 2.2.8. They are not permitted to use University resources or participate in University-sponsored events. 

Nevertheless, according to the 2023 Daily Princetonian senior survey, 20.3 percent of seniors had been or still are a part of Greek life during their time at Princeton.

The objective of tightening hazing laws and mandating reports was to foster a shift in students' attitudes towards hazing and diminish its prevalence on campus.

Dr. Elizabeth Allan, one of the authors of the National Study of Student Hazing, wrote in an email, “Requiring institutions to clearly communicate hazing incidents allows for greater accountability, opportunities to develop trust and strengthen relationships (e.g. incentivizing reporting of hazing, knowing that the institution is going to take the proper steps for investigating organizations/hazing incidents, and clearly reporting the findings/sanctions), creating transparency for students and their family members to help them make informed decisions while they are considering joining a group.”  

Princeton student survey responses conveyed a variety of opinions on hazing and anti-hazing laws. Responses ranged from acknowledging the necessity and importance of hazing laws to advocating for their abolition.

In my opinion, hazing is not an inherent attribute of Greek life, sports teams, or student clubs. All these groups bring incredible value to students by building communities and forging lifelong friendships. Camaraderie can be built without creating trauma for students to bond over. Student leaders have the intelligence, compassion, and creativity it takes to build a community based on constructive — rather than destructive —experiences for its members. 

The current generation of Princeton students has the power to define the social culture that continues into the future. Princeton students should openly discuss and determine which initiation activities add value to participants and which initiation activities are toxic and, therefore, should be considered unacceptable. 

Hazing thrives in the shadows, and universities must recognize the impact that their lack of transparency has on students’ decisions to join certain groups — and, consequently, the experiences the students go through. Students must hold universities to this high standard of transparency, recognizing that universities will always have an incentive to protect their own reputation. Both sides should keep each other accountable.

It is time for hazing to stop being an open secret.

Anna Izyumova is a member of Class of 2023. She can be reached at izyumova@alumni.princeton.edu.

Editor’s note: The fraternity in question did not respond to a request for comment from the ‘Prince’.

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