ORLANDO, Fla. — By the time you receive a complaint about a hazing situation, it’s probably too late to prevent a serious injury, death or lawsuit. That’s why student affairs professionals need to take a proactive approach to prevent hazing — or at least address it early on.

That’s according to Kevin A. Dougherty, the assistant dean of students at the University of California - Los Angeles. Dougherty spoke at the annual conference for NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. His co-presenters, from Fisk University in Nashville, were Jason L. Meriwether, vice president of student engagement and enrollment management; and Danielle M. Pettigrew, associate director of student development and residence life.

The panel offered the following strategies to help you prevent hazing while also improving student safety and reducing institutional liability:

  • Develop an exhaustive policy that prohibits hazing. Clearly explain hazing laws and policies for your state, institution and fraternity/sorority chapters. “The big issue is not whether we have a duty to protect, but whether we follow our policies and framework,” Meriwether said. Failing to publish or actively follow your own policies causes problems down the road, he added.
  • Stay current on case law, applicable theories and hazing incidents in the media. When you hear about hazing incidents or lawsuits at other institutions, consider how you would handle a similar situation. Frequently review policies at the college and high school levels.
  • Restructure your intake process. Reconsider what your unit does with the activity calendars submitted by student organizations/clubs, including fraternities and sororities. Follow up and ask questions to find out more about what their plans entail. Don’t assume you’re not liable for the actions of non-recognized, or independent, organizations.

You’re more likely to be found negligent if those organizations caused problems and you ignored them than if you brought them into your system where you could keep tabs on them. “Ignoring the problem is really dangerous,” Meriwether said.

  • Keep your eye on alumni. Consider whether they’re part of the problem or the solution. Other than typical key times (i.e., commencement, homecoming and other special campus events), are alumni coming to campus during suspicious times? For example, if they’re on campus during fraternity rush or intake, consider whether they’re participating in hazing. Find ways to involve alumni in preventing hazing and educating fraternity/sorority members.
  • Form a hazing task force of professionals. Gain an understanding of why students haze or choose to be hazed. Use that information to prevent hazing on your campus.
  • Publicize the intake process and students going through rush. The fraternity/sorority life office can share its list of students wanting to join fraternities/sororities. Consider publishing the names in the campus newspaper. Forward the list to all faculty and student affairs staff members. Include a note asking them to contact the appropriate advisor if they notice suspicious behavior among these students, such as skipping or sleeping through classes, experiencing pain upon sitting down, etc.

Ask officials responsible for student conduct and campus safety to listen for certain word choices from students who violate conduct codes or are involved in criminal activity. For example, a student might be suspected in a theft. But he keeps using “we” instead of “me,” as in, “We had to get this.” That should raise a red flag: Run his name by fraternity/sorority advisors to see if the student is a fraternity pledge.

  • Hold anti-hazing seminars for students and parents during orientations. Review hazing examples, dangers, laws and policies.
  • Have all first-year students sign an antihazing pledge after they attend a hazing seminar. Provide them with a certificate of completion and require that certificate before they may join any student organization/club.
  • Raise the standards. For example, require a higher GPA for students to join and remain in fraternities/sororities and organizations/clubs. And establish a mandatory minimum sanction for hazing, such as a five-year suspension for a chapter.
  • Develop an institutional culture of immediate documentation and reporting. As soon as you hear about or suspect hazing, document, report and investigate. Then document your investigation. This could help protect you should a lawsuit arise.
  • Establish and maintain relationships with local and regional chapter leadership. Stay in touch on a regular basis, perhaps via monthly email check-ins.

Contact Dougherty at kdougherty@saonet.ucla.edu, Meriwether at jmeriwether@fisk.edu, or Pettigrew at dpettigrew@fisk.edu.