Hazing remains a stubborn issue for US universities. While not as prevalent an issue in the UK, it has been seen to occur in some education establishments, particularly sports groups, and regard should be had to it being a possibility and action taken to prevent it occurring.   

Hazing covers activities that individuals feel coerced to comply with in order to gain admission in a school, an institution or a university club or society. In the US it is especially prevalent in fraternities and sororities, as well as sports clubs. There are a wide variety of practices ranging from psychological coercion (humiliation and being forced to submit to unwanted acts for fear of ostracism), harmful physical activity (sleep deprivation, confinement, extreme mental stress) as well as excessive drinking (usually alcohol) to physical assault (beating, striking, whipping) and sexual abuse. 

Early definitions suggested participants consented to these activities or practices in order to gain admission: “a formal introduction into some position or club…” (Olmert, 1983). Recent definitions exclude consent: “any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers, regardless of the person’s willing to participate” (Hoover, 1999).

Hazing grew in the 1940s and was widespread by the 1980s – when cases started to attract media and legal attention. Most reports refer to excessive alcohol drinking and physical injuries, but there were also deeply racist incidents against African American students (mock KKK rally, kidnapping). Cases of sexual assaults are increasingly reported. Despite efforts to prohibit hazing on American campus, there are still many incidents. Earlier this month the University of Maryland suspended all fraternity and sorority recruiting on campus.

In many states hazing is considered a misdemeanour in criminal law, but often this does not extend to coaches, teachers or university administrators. 

There is no federal anti-hazing civil law for colleges and universities. The only anti-hazing federal statute applies to the military (it has been used for claims by students enrolled in military programs in exchange for fees). There are attempts to introduce federal legislation (the REACH Act in 2021, the Stop Campus Hazing Act in 2023). 

Many states have anti-hazing civil laws and some of them allow claims against administrators, employees and faculty. Claims may also be brought under constitutional law and other federal statutes. But most claims are brought in tort, under one or more causes of action: 

  • Negligence: these alleged failure on the part of fraternities, sororities, colleges or universities to properly supervise students, enforce anti-hazing policies and safeguard students.
  • Gross negligence: this implies a conscious, voluntary act or omission in reckless disregard of a legal duty and the consequences to another party. If established, it opens the doors to punitive damages.
  • Negligent infliction of emotional distress: this does not require intention on the part of the perpetrator.
  • Outrage (Intentional infliction of emotional distress): The actions involved are so extreme that they go beyond all possible bounds of decency. Although the bar is placed high, it is often cleared in university hazing cases.
  • Assault and battery
  • Vicarious liability: universities have a duty to protect students from foreseeable likelihood of injuries. In some cases this extends to third-party assault, even outside campus. 
  • Premise liability: (similar to occupiers liability) Universities are under a duty as landowners to provide reasonable care regarding foreseeable acts of hazing. 
  • Wrongful death: this only applies in cases where hazing results in death.

High-value claims are usually brought against colleges, universities, as well as national fraternities and sororities, as they have ‘deep pockets’.  Claimants will often seek punitive damages to punish defendants for egregious conduct and deter similar behaviour in the future. 

Examples of recent settlements for death by alcohol poisoning are:

  • $10,000,000 settlement (30% by the college and 70% by the fraternity) – Ohio, 2023
  • $6,975,000 payment (23% settled by the university and 87% awarded against the fraternity) – Louisiana, 2023
  • $4,200,000 settlement – Texas, 2008

Other recent settlements include:

  • $5,000,000 for two decades of sexual assault and physical violence by coaching staff – Oklahoma, 2024
  • $1,000,000 for serious physical injuries leading to death – Florida, 2015

As long as the statutory framework remains fragmented, claims are the most powerful way of holding institutions to account for the harm caused by hazing.