Lynn Gordon Bailey, Jr. (“Gordie”) died from alcohol-related hazing just three weeks after arriving at the University of Colorado, Boulder, for his freshman year in 2004. On fraternity bid night, Gordie and 26 other Chi Psi pledges were told to consume a large amount of whiskey and wine in 30 minutes. When Gordie passed out, his “brothers” wrote on his body with permanent markers, gave him a bucket to puke in, and then left him - alone - to sleep it off in the fraternity house. He was found dead the next morning, face down on the floor with a Blood Alcohol Content of .328—more than four times the legal driving limit. No one had called for help.
Collin Wiant was an 18-year-old freshman at Ohio University when he died at the Sigma Pi fraternity house on November 12, 2018. For weeks prior to his death, Collin was intensely hazed during the pledging process, which culminated in Collin being coerced into inhaling “whippets” (nitrous oxide). He had an immediate, severe reaction to the drug, and fraternity members waited 12 minutes before they called 911—at which point it was too late to save his life.
Gordie’s and Collin’s senseless, and completely preventable deaths, are just two among far too many substance-related hazing tragedies. Gordie died within the first 24 hours of joining a group, Collin after several weeks of hazing. Gordie died due to alcohol overdose; Collin from inhalants. Tragically, the members of both fraternities wasted precious minutes delaying medical intervention.
Although hazing has existed for hundreds of years, hazing researcher Hank Nuwer documented that “There wasn't a single [hazing] death from alcohol before 1940. Now, it's one of the most major.”1 Since January 2000, 100 individuals have lost their lives due to hazing activities in the U.S. Of those, 59 were related to substance use, most frequently, alcohol.2
Substance misuse prevention programs miss a critical public health opportunity if they do not include a focus on hazing.
Hazing is “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.”3 Hazing is common among college students, with 55% of those involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experiencing hazing and nearly half of college students (47%) reporting hazing experiences in high school.4 Although not all hazing involves alcohol or other substances, “drinking games” are the most frequently reported hazing behavior and “drinking large amounts of alcohol to the point of getting sick or passing out”4 is tied for third. Among college students who witnessed hazing as bystanders, 71% said alcohol rituals were involved.5
The use of alcohol or other drugs in hazing activities increases the risks of physical and emotional harm. Even small amounts of intoxicating substances impair judgment, which increases the likelihood that students will engage in risky behaviors they would never do otherwise. A key component of hazing is secrecy—the hazers know what will happen, while those being hazed are blind to actual risks. Hazing strategies such as kidnapping, blindfolding, or other forms of sensory deprivation are used to produce anxiety in a misguided attempt to promote group loyalty and bonding. The use of intoxicants increases the underlying anxiety about the unknown aspects of hazing and increases the power differential between hazers and those being hazed. This increases the odds that hazing victims will comply with increasingly unreasonable or dangerous requests. Current group members may even use substances to mask their feelings of guilt or shame for engaging in or allowing hazing activities.
One of the most persistent challenges in ending hazing is that many students believe hazing victims have willingly agreed to the hazing. However, the psychology of hazing makes consent nearly impossible. How can someone consent to an activity when the details are purposefully hidden from them? And of course, a person cannot consent when intoxicated or high or make informed decisions about potential risk. Considering the COVID-related social restrictions of the past year and a half, both first-year and returning students may feel even greater pressure to endure hazing in order to find a place of belonging on campus.
Where should we focus prevention efforts?
Fortunately, student support for bystander intervention is high, with 87% of students believing students should intervene when peers are being hazed and 85% supporting bystander intervention when peers engage in unhealthy alcohol use.5 An immediate focus should be on educating all students on how to recognize and respond to an overdose to prevent another tragedy. Many students are unaware that BAC and drug levels can continue to rise to dangerous levels even after a person has passed out. Bystanders who know the importance of closely monitoring impaired peers for signs of overdose, never leaving anyone alone to sleep it off, and never putting a backpack on someone who has passed out (as the person may roll on their stomach and aspirate vomit) can help save lives.
PUBS signs of alcohol overdose
Observing even one “PUBS” sign of alcohol overdose indicates a medical emergency.
Puking while passed out.
Unresponsive to pinching or shaking.
Breathing is irregular, slow, shallow, or has stopped.
Skin is blue, cold, or clammy. If a person has darker skin, check for pale lips or nail beds.
The PUBS acronym was created by University of Virginia students (in collaboration with emergency medicine physicians and Gordie Center prevention staff) to provide a simple, easy-to-remember guide to identify a medical emergency. Providing education on the PUBS signs and encouraging students to sign the Pledge to Check can reinforce the importance of calling 911, even if only one PUBS sign is present.
Parents and guardians are another critical population. Nearly every family has discussions about the importance of never driving after drinking, but far fewer discuss the risks of consuming too much alcohol or of hazing—both of which can have lethal outcomes. Encouraging parents to have these discussions prior to the start of and throughout the academic year should be part of campus prevention plans.
Longer term, prevention professionals should seek ways to weave hazing education into existing substance misuse prevention and health promotion programs. Topics can include how alcohol use prohibits consent, the psychological harms of hazing (which can be exacerbated by spotty or nonexistent memories), and the use of intoxicants to mitigate feelings of shame.
To assist campuses in their hazing and substance misuse prevention efforts, the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center provides free, evidence-informed Instagram campaigns and animated one-minute videos, all of which were created in partnership with students. Topics include the PUBS signs of overdose, hazing bystander intervention, talking with your student about hazing, and many more. Schools can post materials on social media, embed in PowerPoint presentations, or use in other ways that support their data-driven prevention strategies.
As Campus Life Resumes, So Does Concern Over Hazing. NPR, May 4, 2021
U.S. Hazing Deaths Database. https://www.hanknuwer.com Accessed May 20, 2021.
Stop Hazing.org https://stophazing.org/issue/ Accessed July 26, 2021.
Allan, E.J. and Madden, M. (2008) Hazing in View: College Students at Risk.
National College Student Bystander Intervention Study Data Summary Report (2020). WITH US Center for Bystander Intervention at Cal Poly.
Susie Bruce, M.Ed., is Director of the University of Virginia’s Gordie Center, which works to end hazing and substance misuse among college and high school students nationwide through evidence-informed, student-tested resources. She also directs the NCAA-funded APPLE Training Institutes, a strategic training program for substance misuse prevention and health promotion within college athletics. She is a Faculty Affiliate of Youth-Nex: The Center to Promote Effective Youth Development and serves on the Executive Board of the Step UP! Bystander Intervention Program.