Criminal Law

By Carley Hitchins


Freshers are friends not food! Calls to criminalise hazing in Australian colleges

With O-week just passed, the infamous ritual of hazing has once again caught the attention of the media. Hazing essentially describes the ritual humiliation of newcomers (‘freshers’) to college life.

Last month, End Rape on Campus Australia published a blistering 200-page report titled The Red Zone. The title refers to the heightened danger of sexual assault during orientation week at universities. The Red Zone report shines a light on the toxic culture that has loomed over Australian university colleges for decades.

The report discusses a number of college rituals, one involves males from Evatt College pulling out the skin of their scrotum to make a cup where beer is poured and a kneeling student drinks from it, referred to by students as bird bathing. Another involved fresher students being locked in the bathrooms at St John’s College and having vats of dead fish thrown at them.

Recognition of the dangerous and damaging nature of hazing has led nearly every jurisdiction in the United States to criminalise hazing activities. Most US states, including Florida, California and Texas, have criminalised initiation rituals likely to cause serious bodily injury. Nonetheless, there were 40 hazing related deaths in the past decade at US colleges.

The Red Zone Report recommends that hazing be criminalised across Australia, in particular:

the act of requiring an individual to undergo any act which is likely to cause bodily danger or physical punishment to any student or other person, as a precondition of joining or participating in a student group or organisation.

Most jurisdictions in Australia already make it a crime to intentionally or recklessly engage in behaviour that creates a substantial or real risk of serious physical and mental harm. Considering the broad spectrum of actions hazing incorporates, there are a number of criminal charges that can arise from current state and territory legislations including common assault, torture and rape.

Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, says current laws are sufficient to stop assaults and harassment.

“I don’t think the case that there is a gap in the law has been clearly made,” he said. “What there clearly is, is a failure of culture to ensure that people are willing to report the problem and that’s where maximum assistance [is required].

While implementing a criminal law may well be the appropriate response to hazing, a consideration of how to better utilise the existing laws is crucial in addressing and reforming the cultures of these institutions.