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Richard C. Senelick, M.D.

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Is Your Child Safe at College?

Posted: 08/03/11 10:00 AM ET

Last week, I walked into one of my examination rooms and sitting across from me was a young man who shouldn't have survived his college fraternity's hazing prank. After being forced to consume large amounts of assorted noxious substances, he developed uncontrolled seizures and brain swelling. He was already in the ICU on a ventilator when his parents received the dreaded middle-of-the-night phone call. He was lucky. He was dismissed from his university hospital, returned to school to finish the semester and escaped without any brain damage.

A month earlier, a colleague told me about another college student who was riding his bicycle home to his apartment after a party when he was kidnapped at gunpoint and thrown into the backseat of a car. They drove him from ATM to ATM in an attempt to extract money. He was lucky -- they let him go. But will he or his family ever feel safe again?

When Did it Start?

Hazing, an act against someone in order to initiate the person into an organization, is not new. Schools in ancient Greece and medieval Europe called it pennalism and adopted it as a requirement for graduation. Serious injuries occurred frequently and the practice decreased in the 1700s, only to resume a century later. In 1845, Amherst College administrators wrote a letter to the families and parents of Amherst students informing them that, "we merely desire you know what dangers attend college life," for students were practicing personal habits that were "unfavorable to study and morality." Students kept "secret apartments" where the "grossest dissipation may be indulged undiscovered." Professors and college presidents felt they were dealing with students whose behavior was beyond their control. Fast forward 150 years. Do administrators and parents have similar concerns today?

The sad truth is that students can graduate from college worse off physically and psychologically than when they entered. A unique transition takes place when a student goes from high school to college, because this culture's new environment includes:

• Binge drinking
• Rituals and hazing
• A transition from a structured home setting to freedom and self responsibility
• Close friends and peers who exert more influence than their parents

In an ideal world, in addition to academic learning, college would include a "health benefit." Students would successfully separate fact from fiction about sexual activity, smoking, drinking, risk taking and limit testing.

The Dangers of Hazing

Hazing is not just a part of the fraternity and sorority community, but is also deeply embedded in sports, military and service organizations. The optimistic premise is that hazing increases group cohesiveness while promoting respect and loyalty for the organization. Supporters of hazing will point to these positive attributes and add that part of hazing includes maintaining grade point averages, community service, tutoring or fundraising. But the dark side of hazing is dangerous and can result in physical and psychological damage, even death.

A study by Shelly Campo revealed that students are surprisingly neutral about hazing and that their definition is quite narrow, including only extreme forms like being beaten or raped. Students may not recognize the psychological abuse that they are inflicting on others or that they are experiencing themselves. Besides hazing, many students fail to recognize the risks of their health-related decisions like alcohol consumption, smoking, eating disorders and sexual behavior. Many colleges focus only on the Greek system and varsity athletics and fail to notice the other campus organizations' activities and health risks.

Here is a partial list of common methods of hazing that can easily be viewed as abuse.

• Beating, paddling, striking
• Branding, tattoos, burning
• Calisthenics under conditions that may lead to physical injury
• Consumption of non-food substances, excessive laxatives, soy sauce, large pieces of liver -- one student choked to death.
• Falls from climbing ledges and bridges, frequently under the influence of alcohol.
• Sitting in noxious substances like excrement, vomit or animal entrails
• Psychological abuse that includes shouting, yelling or demeaning comments about a student's appearance. One sorority took a Sharpie and circled the pledge girls' "excessive fat" and commanded them to either lose it or not get accepted into the sorority.
• Kidnapping or abandonment
• Sexual assaults including rape, sodomy, simulated sexual acts with persons of the same or opposite sex
• Alcohol consumption: many of the above activities are performed under the influence of alcohol: 93 percent of sexual assaults occur under the influence of alcohol.

Like domestic violence, hazing injuries are underreported because of embarrassment, a desire to protect others or a desire to be accepted by the organization. Hazing can be a criminal act, and the student/patient has several legal options. Illegal hazing, sexual assaults and alcohol injuries need to be reported for criminal investigation and not just handled by the university.

It's Not Just Hazing

College life is filled with other dangers. Women are at an increased risk for sexual violence and abuse. Alcohol consumption increases in the transition from high school to college and this contributes to the sexual victimization of women. Many students become first-time drinkers, while others increase their consumption. For some, binge drinking is a way of life. A recent study in Buffalo New York reported that 22 percent of young women experienced sexual victimization during their freshman year and 38 percent of these women reported severe sexual victimization. Women who increased their alcohol consumption also reported increased problems with:

• Consensual sex they regretted afterwards
• Physical or sexual assault
• Robbery or theft
• Passing out
• Inability to do homework

It isn't just women. Men have similar problems when they abuse alcohol, but are also more vulnerable to the violent crimes of assault and robbery. While college campuses are safer than their surrounding communities or urban areas, students venture off campus or commute from apartments that are off campus. College campuses that are close to major urban areas are more prone to property and violent crime. A Justice Department study (PDF) reported that men were twice as likely as women to be the victims of violent crime and that:

• 58 percent were committed by strangers
• 41 percent of the offenders were using alcohol or drugs
• 93 percent of the crimes occurred off campus
• 72 percent occurred at night

What are the Solutions?

The Jeanne Clery Act is named in memory of a 19-year-old Lehigh University freshman who was raped and murdered in her residence hall in 1986. As a result of this law, schools are required to report all crimes and violent activities to the Department of Education. Many colleges and universities question the validity of the data reported on the OPE Campus Safety and Security Statistics website, but you can go online and find the crime statistics for your college or prospective colleges. More importantly, parents can use this information to help their child make informed decisions.

Unfortunately, statistics alone will not stop the problem, and education is not enough to stop bad behavior. However, a "zero tolerance" policy is difficult to enforce as students may resist change and do the opposite to protect their own beliefs and opinions. Hazing and injuries often continue, despite the fact that colleges have strict regulations to limit it. In the meantime, here are some common sense tips to share with your college student:

• Know your alcohol limit. Bad things happen when you are intoxicated and you are never quite as attractive or clever as your drunken self believes.
• Sexual abuse against men and women occurs almost universally under the influence of alcohol and involves someone they know. Limit your drinking.
• Go out in groups, particularly at night. Remember, you may not know the people around you as well as you think you do.
• Be aware of your surroundings. Have your keys out and walk with confidence: head up and briskly.
• Avoid walking while wearing headphones or using a cell phone, as it may distract you from your environment. On the other hand, some students like to stay connected to someone on their phone in case something happens. Stay alert.
• Learn to say NO!
• If it feels wrong or uncomfortable, leave.
• Acquire friends outside of your fraternity, sorority or sports team. They will help give you perspective.
• Keep your door locked.
• Take a self defense course.

For most people, college is a wonderful time of intellectual and emotional growth. A few precautions will help keep it that way.

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