We’ve heard it time and time again when a major hazing incident hits the news – the idea that a few bad apples are to blame for the latest tragic death, serious injury or embarrassing incident (usually with photos or video involved). The recent conviction of Matthew Naquin for negligent homicide in the death of Max Gruver in the fall of 2017, shows that courts are more willing to punish individuals, and the testimony clearly shows that he was an enthusiastic hazer of Gruver who probably played a more significant role in the hazing that lead to his death. He could face up to five years in prison.
I have long been an advocate for stronger enforcement of the hazing laws that exist, strengthening the laws to impose more felony charges (especially in the case of hazing deaths), and doling our stricter sentences in the rare cases of hazing convictions. I have even stated in past social media posts that harsher consequences might get students to consider their actions more carefully in the future, thus deterring future hazing incidents. The research may tell a different story.
The National Institute of Justice (2016) summarized a large body of research about crime and punishment into five main points:
- The certainty of being caught is a vastly more powerful deterrent than even the harshest punishment.
- Sending an individual convicted of a crime to prison isn’t a very effective way to deter crime.
- Police deter crime by increasing the perception that criminals will be caught and punished.
- Increasing the severity of punishment does little to deter crime.
- There is no proof that the death penalty deters criminals.
Preventing serious injuries and deaths from hazing, and even the long-term psychological damage that we almost never hear about, requires culture change, and that doesn’t happen from focusing solely on individuals. This was hammered home recently as I listened to a TED Talk from Valarie Kaur. She said, “Anytime we fought bad actors, we didn’t change very much, but when we chose to wield our swords and shields to battle bad systems, that’s when we saw change.”
This is the approach HazingPrevention.Org has always advocated. Prevention focuses on systems change. It is deliberate, multifaceted, planned and evaluated, strategic and targeted, research based (and we need much more research on this issue), collaborative, supported by infrastructure, commitment and systems and it must involve key stakeholders from various disciplines (Langford, 2008). HPO’s summer Prevention Institute teaches a public health approach utilizing three different models, and implementing this requires a marathon rather than a sprint mentality.
Response and intervention are important parts of the equation because how we approach them signals to students how seriously we take the problem. Since the research shows that the fear of being caught is a more potent deterrent than the harshness of the punishment, greater focus on detecting hazing is definitely needed – and before it reaches tragic levels. Training local and campus police to detect hazing and intervene could work wonders.
Education has been our main focus for the past few decades, and it has succeeded to some degree in helping students and others understand what hazing is and why perpetrating it at any level is so dangerous. It has not, however, necessarily decreased hazing or deaths from it. Educating individuals and punishing them when policies are violated is definitely one piece of the puzzle, but a prevention approach forces us to look at the systems that allow hazing to flourish in the first place.
We can, and should, do both. Increasing the likelihood that perpetrators will get caught and punishing them when they do (individuals and organizations) is a good first step, but we shouldn’t be lulled into thinking it is the only, or even the most effective one. Addressing the few bad apples doesn’t address the tree in which the apples fell.
- Gallo, Andrea (2019), Why Matthew Naquin’s felony conviction makes LSU case stand out from other hazing trials, The Advocate, July 19, 2019, 3:53 p.m.,
- National Institute of Justice (2016), “Five Things About Deterrence,” June 5, 2016, nij.ojp.gov, URL: http://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/five-things-about-deterrence
- Langford, L. (2008). A Comprehensive Approach to Hazing Prevention in Higher Education Settings Working Paper. May 23, 2008. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. URL: https://learn.uvm.edu/wordpress_3_4b/wp-content/uploads/Langford-Higher-Ed-Center-Hazing-Working-Paper.pdf