Understanding the Dangers of Hazing and Breaking the Cycle with Kathleen Wiant
Speaker 1: I'm not coming down. I never liked it on the ground. I'm not coming down. I want to go higher, higher than this. inaudible
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Today's episode could save a life. And I don't say that flippantly, casually. If you know someone in high school or college, this episode could in fact save their life. I'm Rebecca Fleetwood Hession, host of the Badass Womens Council podcast. And today my guest is Kathleen Wiant who suffered the most horrible tragedy of any parent, the loss of a child, and Kathleen lost her son in a hazing incident. And today she's on the show to share with us everything that she's learned and is now sharing with anyone and everyone that she can to save the life of another. That's the power of living in community. That's the power that we have is to listen to this episode and share what we've learned. Today, Kathleen is going to share and debunk the stereotypes of those involved with hazing. She's going to give you information about the neuroscience behind how and why it happens. This episode is rich with information that you can do something about, and you can share. We're all getting ready to go into gatherings and holiday season. And this is the opportunity to share something really, really impactful. Here's Kathleen. inaudible
Speaker 1: I'm not coming down. [inaudible 00:01: 58 ].
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Hey Kathleen, how's it going?
Kathleen Wiant: It's going great. So good to connect with you.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Absolutely. So our stories have an interesting dynamic. We met very briefly as I was leaving my Franklin Covey career. And you had just begun yours, gosh, three or four years ago, now? I don't crosstalk even know.
Kathleen Wiant: Yeah, yeah, yeah, about three and a half years ago. You're right.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: And we both just felt this kind of kindred spirit sense where I was sad as I was leaving that we weren't going to get to spend more time together. So I'm thrilled that we're able to reunite today and have some time on the podcast.
Kathleen Wiant: I am too. Yes. I feel like the moment we met, we just kind of clicked and wish we would have gotten to work together longer, but that's okay. crosstalk... to connect again now.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: It's funny how that happens. I talk a lot, actually, the entire podcast is about reflection and connection for high achieving women that we often a sense of the people that are supposed to be in our lives, for some reason, whether, we don't know often what it is for, but you just kind of have a feeling. And I think that's exactly what you and I both felt. So, today, you're going to share a bit of your story and that's another key aspect of connection is when we can share our stories, our struggles, our vulnerabilities, we create the opportunity for connection. And unfortunately, in a very tragic circumstance, just after we had met, you experienced one of the most horrific things that a mother can experience. And it has since led that to be something that you are educating people on. Can you just tell us the story about Collin, and that worst day of your life?
Kathleen Wiant: Yeah, absolutely. So I have five children and had sent two children off to college and one out and one almost out and sent my third one off to college. And we were really excited about him starting at Ohio University, where my husband and I both attended. He, a few months into it, about a month or two into it decided to go through the rushing process to consider joining a fraternity. My husband and I were both Greek at Ohio University. So, we thought that was a great idea. We totally supported that. And he joined a fraternity called Sigma PI. And that's what we knew at that point, from our perspective until one night in the middle of the night in November, we got a knock at the door in the middle of the night. And when I answered it was two officers and this third man standing there. And I was sound asleep, just trying to make sense of what was going on. And so I looked at the officer and I said," Who's that?" Pointing at the third man. And they said," That's the chaplain." And I knew right then. And I told them, I said," I understand exactly what's going on here. Which one of my children is it because two were upstairs sound asleep and three of them lived away from home", and they wouldn't tell me. And I kept asking again," Which one of my children is it? Which one?" And they kept saying," Get your husband." So I started yelling for my husband. He came down and they stepped in the house. And before I knew it just so quickly, everything in my life unraveled, they started saying on behalf of the Dublin police department, we regret to inform you that at 3: 00 AM this morning, your son Collin Wyatt was found unresponsive at 45 Mill Street in Athens, Ohio. And it's like everything starts to spin. It was so surreal. I can remember that moment like it was yesterday. It goes play by play so slow, as they said that. When they said it to us, they were standing in our living room, they were facing us. And behind us was a huge family portrait that they were looking at while they're telling us this. And I always think of that, like what that had to be like for them. And we didn't know how he died. We had no details. As a matter of fact, I remember saying to the officer, I kept asking questions, they didn't know anything. And I said," There's no way I'm going to bury my son when I have no idea how he died." And five days later, that's exactly what I had to do. And as the months went by, we began to get more information. And we learned that for the last few weeks of Collin's life, he was horribly hazed. He was beaten and belted and waterboarded. He was forced drugs and alcohol, and he was hazed to death. So, that just put me on this trajectory of trying to learn everything about hazing. I was so surprised, number one, because my husband and I didn't experience hazing. Number two, I pictured like the kid who was hazed. I am sorry to say I had the stereotype that it is this very weak, needy kid who's trying to fit in, and so needs that approval. And Collin wasn't like that. He was this kid who was really strong. He was an athlete. He was really into physical fitness. He was cute. I mean, of course I'm his mom, so I think that.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: I've seen pictures. I will validate he was cute.
Kathleen Wiant: He was smart. he was an honor roll student. He inaudible spent his summers volunteering with the Miracle League of Central Ohio, helping special needs kids. I mean, he just was so well- rounded and had such a solid sense of himself. And on top of that, he was always so independent. So he was the middle of five and we would always joke about how he was really always trying to be different than the other four. And he liked that. He was fine with it. He was comfortable with it. He was all about," You do you, and I'll do me." I don't care if we're not doing the same thing. He didn't... So I couldn't understand how did this kid fall prey to hazing? It didn't make sense. So I really felt like I needed to learn everything about it, just for my own peace of mind to answer this. And I started learning so much that defied all my assumptions and stereotypes about hazing. I learned that we think of hazing, we think of Greek organizations in the United States, and I learned that hazing happens in high school and college. There are a million and a half high school kids hazed every year. We don't think of that when we think of hazing.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: A million and a half?
Kathleen Wiant: Yes. Every single year.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Oh, my gosh. Keep going.
Kathleen Wiant: So, it's at the high school level. I learned that hazing, oh, happens in varsity athletics more often just by 1%, but more often than the Greek system. And when we think of hazing, we think of the Greek system, not varsity athletics in college. I learned that hazing is not just the United States. It's global. That was very shocking to me. They have different names for it in different parts of the world, but it's all hazing. And then some parts of the world is far more severe, far more severe. And I learned all these stories about people who were hazed that defy the stereotype of what we think of when we think of someone being hazed. I mean, there are stories about football players being hazed to death, Boy Scouts being hazed to death. Students at Ivy league schools like MIT being hazed to death. Med school students, nursing students being hazed, a Green Beret who a couple of years ago died in a choke hold from hazing. So, I needed to understand why all this was happening. And I started to learn the neuroscience behind it, about how we have this strong need to belong because it's hardwired in us, right? Because back thousands of years ago, when we were hunting for food and building shelter, our survival rate was higher if we were part of a group than we were alone, right? So this is hardwired in us. We do have that need to belong. And that's used in hazing, but it's not used like we think. So when we think of someone being hazed, our immediate thought is why could they not walk away? I mean, they had that choice. Why did they not walk away? And the reason they don't walk away is because of something called creeping normality. And that is when objectionable change is accepted when it occurs in very slow increments, and that's how hazing works. So when you decide to rush a fraternity like Collin did, when you go to the first campus event, if you meet someone there, they don't tell you right away," Hey, by the way, if you try to join our fraternity, we are going to make you kind of be our servant for weeks, and you're going to have to run errands for us. You're going to be on call for us 24 hours a day. You're going to be doing our cooking. And we're going to tie you up and blindfold you and force you to do drugs." They don't say that, because if they did you'd be like" I'm out of here." Right?
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Right.
Kathleen Wiant: But what they do is once you're trying to join, they start off with something that's kind of fun or funny, just a small thing that they think like maybe singing for the fraternity brothers or dancing for them, something fun, and funny. And then it slowly turns into something that's a little humiliating, like having to wear a goofy costume on campus. That's a very common one. And then it goes from humiliating to something that's a little degrading, like maybe having to stand out in front of the fraternity house, in your underwear, in the middle of winter. And then it turns to things that are demeaning. And then it can turn to things quickly that are dangerous and no one expects it to go like that. But if an organization is willing to haze you a little with what we think of as a small harmless acts, it typically is just the beginning of additional acts. And the additional acts are never going to get easier. They're always going to get harder. And when you think of all these kids who have been convicted of hazing kids to death, if you ask them, when you started out having that pledge sing to the fraternity brothers, did you ever think that you were going to haze them to death? They're going to say" No, absolutely not." They didn't wake up that day and say," I'm out to haze, a pledge to death." But it's so dangerous because it spirals out of control. This is not a controlled process. It's not an expected process.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: It's cumulative. Right? So that person that was hazed then becomes leader of the hazing and this cumulative compound effect, it sounds like. And what it reminds me of is when you listen to stories about how even sexual predators get kids to trust them, it's in those little bits at a time that are meant to build trust, but are taking them down that evil path.
Kathleen Wiant: Yeah, absolutely. It's that emotional manipulation.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Really fascinating that you found that a large percentage happens in varsity athletics because here's a situation where many parents have encouraged their kids to be a part of varsity athletics because of the discipline, the community, the, all of what has been led to believe is this great outcome of being a part of sports has a very dark side.
Kathleen Wiant: A very dark side. And so do other organizations. When we think at the high school or college level, for instance, me and my stereotype of band kids, those are the nicest kids, the safest kids for my kids to be with. I would love for them to be in that group of kids and bands are notorious for horrific hazing. A young boy named Robert Champion was in a band, a college band, and he was beaten to death on the bus by all the band members, just horrific, just horrific, but bands are very strong with hazing traditions too. And at the high school level, so our church groups, so Alfred University did studies and they found that the most dangerous and illegal forms of hazing were conducted by church groups, which is so shocking.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Oh, my gosh. It is a part of that group think that you've mentioned, and I have other stories where churches gone wrong, it makes my heart ache because quite frankly, I love Jesus more than I love anybody else. And the institution of church has made it really difficult for all of us that believe and want to follow in what he teaches, so, gosh, that makes my heart ache. But I don't question it one bit. I believe it, a hundred percent to be true.
Kathleen Wiant: Yeah. The fact is it just happens everywhere within these high school and college teams, clubs, organizations. It's just so widespread.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: I love what you're doing in sharing your story. And I know from the brief time that we've chatted here and the things that I've been following you online since the day I saw the announcement that this had happened, you've been relentless to get information. And in that journey, I know that you have said that that is helping you heal by serving other parents with this information that you're gathering so that they can have their eyes wide open and they can do all they can to prevent, and to be able to get this information out to students alike. What are you feeling like is your, to use our Franklin Covey phrase end in mind with this? Do you have a specific way that you want this to be used most?
Kathleen Wiant: Yes, absolutely. So, what I'm trying to do is my goal is to reach as many high school and college students as possible and their parents, because before Collin went off to college, if you asked parents when they send their kid off to college, are you having discussions with them about hazing? The great majority of them are going to say," No." I actually talked to Collin about hazing before he went to college.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Wow.
Kathleen Wiant: I know. And when I did, I remember him, I so clearly remember him saying," Mom, I don't even think I'm going to join a fraternity. I don't even want to go that route." And his older brother went to the same school to Ohio University and was never Greek. And his sister went to a different school, but was never Greek. So I thought, yeah, he probably, that's just not their thing. I don't care either way, you know? So he wasn't planning on doing it, but I did have those conversations with him. And now the conversation I would have with him is so very different than what I knew then as someone who spent four years of my college life, just deep, deep, deep into Greek life, I was on executive council every year. I lived in the sorority house every year. I was all about Greek leadership in my sorority and my husband was the same way with his fraternity. He was a founding father of his fraternity, a refounding father at the OU campus. So, and to know that this conversation I had with Collin, that I was not even understanding the most important things to tell them, which is a little bit of hazing is not okay. So, to answer your question, I want to get to every high school and college student I want to get to their parents, so their parents can have this conversation. And the conversation is about a little bit of hazing is not okay because the initial hazing will always be fun or funny, or at the very worst awkward. It always starts off that. No, one's going to grab you and take you down the basement and tie you up the first day that you come to the fraternity. That's just not going to happen because they know you'd walk out. You don't have any connection then you have no skin in the game. At that point, they wait until you're so far in that you've done where it gets really bad. And all of a sudden you're like," Oh, my God, is that hazing?" And by the time it is, you've done something that's so humiliating. And you're like, I can't believe I did that, but what am I going to do now? I'm not going to admit that to people. I'm not going to share that with people. So, I'll just wait it out because I'm sure that's the last thing. That was so bad. That's the last thing." All these hazing kids always say that, that they thought this was the last thing and that they just want to get through it because they know it's almost over all these kids say that. And then it gets so much worse from there. So, I want the kids and parents to understand that a little bit is not okay. So my goal is to change the idea of hazing, that it's not that there's the fun hazing and the bad hazing it's that any hazing is not acceptable. And hazing is defined by someone do anything that embarrasses them or harms them in any way to join a club team or organization or maintain membership in it. But when you look at where does it begin to me where hazing begins is the minute that new members are separated out from existing members and asked to do things differently in a way that the new member, otherwise wouldn't choose. That's the minute hazing's begun, because when you think about it, and I say that they wouldn't otherwise choose meaning if the fraternity members or mem members of the team or the club decide to have the new members come over and clean their office or their gathering space or their house or whatever it is, that's not something that new member would otherwise choose, right? They're not going to wake up one Saturday morning, say," Wow, I want to go scrub floors and clean." They wouldn't choose that. But if they ask them to come over and they're doing a big steak dinner for them, like welcoming the pledges who wouldn't choose that. So, that's the differentiators. It's okay if they're separated out, as long as it's something that, that new member would choose to do under normal circumstances.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: That's really, really helpful. Really. That's the kind of conversation because exactly what you experienced. If you say the word hazing, everybody goes to the far end of the spectrum. If you're preparing your child going off to either band camp or college, right. But when you talk about it in that way, that's an observable behavior that, that kid can stop and go," Hold on a minute." And it just keeps bringing me back to other things, and it is all part of neuroscience, right? And it brings me back to this, what I talk a lot about in the culture work that I do is psychological safety. Do the people in your organization, or do you feel safe with your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. So, that first bit of, I wouldn't otherwise choose. This takes you out of that feeling of safety, but it's in such a small way that you likely think it's you, that you should just get over it. That it's you that's feeling uncomfortable, that you shouldn't feel this way. And because you want to fit in, you somehow justify it in your mind that it's just part of what it means to fit in. So, that's a really interesting way to describe it, I think, that kids would be more in tune with.
Kathleen Wiant: Yeah, because when you look at the emotional journey of hazing, when it starts, and it moves beyond just that awkward or uncomfortable stage, it's like you start to second guess yourself, like gas lighting, for instance, it's like that very much where you start to think, am I just being a wimp about that? Am I just being over- sensitive crosstalk because, yeah, I mean, it must be me because look, everyone else is going along with this. And what you don't realize is everyone else is probably thinking the same crosstalk And we know from the bystander effect that if everyone else is doing nothing, we're very likely to do nothing. And what we also know about the bystander effect is if just one person will take action, it's often like opening the flood gates where others will follow.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Oh, my gosh, this is so helpful. What about the crosstalk No, go ahead. I'm crosstalk crosstalk
Kathleen Wiant: ...the bystander is to me the most critical player in the hazing process. So, Dr. Susan Lumpkins, who's just brilliant around hazing. Her work is amazing around hazing and she defines that there are three roles in hazing. So there's the victim being hazed. So, your first year you're hazed and then that next year, you're into the organization, but the senior members are the hazers, they're doing the hazing, right? So that's the second player is the hazer. And that second year that you're in the organization, you're just kind of in limbo. So, you're typically a bystander, right? That first year in the organization, so maybe in college, it would be your sophomore year, let's say. You're typically the one just watching it. And then by junior year, you might get involved a little bit. And by senior year you feel like it's my duty to carry on this tradition. So, I think the greatest opportunity for changing behavior is through that bystander, if we can get them every time to say that it's not okay, I think that's most likely where we can drive the change.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: To break the cycle, right? So, then it's a numbers game. If you can break the cycle enough, then you have less hazers that are carrying that torch. That was exactly the next question I was going to ask is what's the evolution of this? Because ultimately there are leaders doing this, so that's really helpful. Do you have, I don't even know how to describe it. In a traditional corporate world, I would say, do you have classes for parents or kids that you're building, or that exists, where you teach this kind of thing to prepare?
Kathleen Wiant: What I do personally is I do speak at universities to their student populations. So, I will go and educate them and speak to them about hazing. And I do some virtual now, obviously in the virtual world that we live in. And then there's a fantastic organization website, hazingprevention. org, which has great information and webinars, fantastic webinars to educate you about hazing, educate parents about hazing.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Good, good. Oh, my gosh. So much, like you, I am just baffled by the details that are nothing like I would have guessed them to be. So the information is so important because it's counterintuitive to what we've thought.
Kathleen Wiant: Yeah, absolutely. And hazing has been going on for so long. Believe it or not, the first cited case of hazing, it dates back to Plato's Academy, if you can believe that. [ crosstalk 00:00:25:10].
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Seriously?
Kathleen Wiant: Seriously. Seriously, that's how old hazing is. And Hank Newer is a professor who's expert on hazing and he has, what's called the hazing death database and he's tracked them back to the 1800s. So it's been going on a long time. And since 1961, there's been at least a hazing death every year. Another, unfortunately in recent years it has spiked. I mean, in 2018 and 19, I think there are at least three or four hazing deaths each of those years. 2017, there were multiple hazing deaths. So not only are the numbers increasing, but the severity, right? So, when you're going through the hazing process and you graduate to the next level to being a bystander, and then when it becomes your turn to be the haze, you always feel like, well, I've got to carry out on that tradition and I've got to put my twist on it, right? Because I'm not doing my job if I... I got to make it a little worse or what am I...? So, it often gets a little worse every year.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Oh my gosh. So, steeped in tradition, which is another kind of group think gone, or tradition, which group think goes wrong is in this situation. But like you said, putting your unique spin on it. I often talk about it's, we want to be seen, known and known and heard is our deepest human need for our uniqueness. So, this is an example where that has gone horrifically wrong, but it's still fundamentally part of the way that our brains are wired is to do that instinctively.
Kathleen Wiant: Absolutely.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Wow. Well, how can we continue to follow you and support you? One of the things I love about a audience of badass career women is you give us information and we're going to do something with it. And so I want to be able to give our audience a way that we can stay connected with you and share this information. What's the best way to do that?
Kathleen Wiant: Yeah. Well, thank you for that. So I do have a website, KathleenWiant. com, and you can follow me on social media, through there, they're direct links. I just recorded a Ted Talk that we'll be posting on YouTube fairly soon. When it does, my goal is to get that in front of as many high school and college students and their parents as possible, because I think it... My hope is that it changes their understanding of why this little small acts of harmless why those aren't harmless. They seem all in good fun when they start out, but why those are dangerous kind of making it very black and white for them is the goal of that. So, as soon as that Ted Talk is posted on YouTube just to share that with students in their lives, it's called the hazing trap.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Excellent. Well, I'm more than happy to do that. And in our last episode, we talked about, sometimes we get whispers and signs that we should pay attention to. And one of the things that really hit me when you told me about recording the Ted Talk, is that the live version of the Ted Talk actually happened on the anniversary of Collin's death, right?
Kathleen Wiant: Yes. Yes. TEDxDayton had a few nights in which they were live streaming the Ted Talks for a TEDxDayton 2020, and Collins aired on the two year anniversary of his passing, which was, that was just unbelievable, and so meaningful that after my Ted Talk TEDxDayton and had a moment of silence for Collin, put his picture up and just had a moment of silence. And that was really meaningful to all of us in the family and all Collin's friends.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: I love that. I love that. Those are those times when you know that God is working all things together. And even when we don't see it, it gives us those little signs. So, thank you for sharing your story. Thank you for educating us, so we can take this story and make sure that we institute that kind of change and give those bystanders the tools and the things that they need to stand tall and against all that this represents.
Kathleen Wiant: Yeah. Well, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you and your audience, your badass women, so thank you for that very much.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Awesome. Thanks for being here. [inaudible 00:29: 35 ].
Speaker 1: I'm not coming down.
Rebecca Fleetwood Hession: Thanks for listening. And now it's time to take some action, share this episode, share it on all your social media platforms, send it directly to parents of high school and college kids. Send it directly to those high school and college kids that and love. I'll have links in the show notes for Kathleen's website, as well as the websites that she has mentioned that can be helpful. If you have opportunities for Kathleen to speak, please contact her directly or contact me. And as soon as her Ted Talk is released, I'll be sharing that as well. Thanks so much.
Speaker 1: I'm not coming down. I never liked it on the ground. I'm not coming down. I want to go higher, higher than this. inaudible
Community is a powerful tool we all have. When we share our stories, experiences, and knowledge we can help our people around us. In this week’s episode, we will listen to Kathleen Wiant — a public speaker, a mother, and an anti-hazing activist — as she tells us about the tragic death of her son. Her son, Collin Wiant, died in a hazing incident at Ohio University in 2018. Ever since that moment, Kathleen has spent her time trying to understand everything she can about hazing. She has learned about the neuroscience behind it, the stereotypes associated with it, and the ways we can break the cycle. In today’s conversation with Rebecca, she shares her story and what she has learned in an effort to help other parents and children dealing with issues of hazing. She wants to change the idea of hazing and help people talk about the issue rather than just be a bystander watching it happen. Kathleen talks about when and where hazing starts, and the emotional journey of hazing itself. Listen in to learn more about what you can do to break the cycle of hazing and how you can understand and recognize hazing when it is happening in today’s conversation with Rebecca Fleetwood Hession and Kathleen Wiant.