A victimless offense can be broadly defined as an offense where the person who is considered the “victim” consents to the act of violence. Often, the offense violates social and community standards rather than having a tangible legal implication. Suicide and self-harm, which are both dangerous and self-directed, can be considered as victimless offenses and have had a longer history of occurrence in schools than other high-profile acts of violence. Unlike suicide and self-harm, hazing is not self-directed; nevertheless, as a form of violent initiation into a group, victims often consent to the hazing-related violence committed against them. Even so, true consent is questionable in such case, given that peer pressure and a desire to belong to a group are involved.
Suicide is the conscious act of ending one’s own life. Self-harm likewise refers to a person’s intention to deliberately inflict harm on himself or herself, often as a coping strategy. While suicidal behavior consists of thoughts and actions that may lead to serious injury, self-harm can be distinguished from a suicide attempt in that the person who engages in self-harm does not intend to die. It is possible for both behaviors to exist in the one person; thus an individual engaging in self-harm may accidentally cause his or her own death or attempt suicide in a moment of desperation.
Described as a multidimensional malaise or depression by suicide expert Edwin Shneidman, suicide is a desperate solution where the sufferer can see no other alternative. It is the third leading cause of death among American teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24. A survey of 10,000 U.S. school-aged adolescents showed that 24.1% had serious thoughts about suicide, 17.7% had made a plan for suicide, and 8.7% had already attempted suicide in the last 12 months. Suicide is far less common in younger age groups, with a less than 1% occurrence noted in children aged 5 to 10.
Suicide, as a consequence of a number of distress factors, is framed on an interpersonal level as the only and best solution in a needful individual. Changes to behavior indicating personal crisis can suggest a risk of suicide. The Center for Suicide Prevention has compiled a list of seven indicators of school-aged adolescents at risk of suicide:
- Unexpected reduction of academic performance
- Ideas and themes of depression, death, and suicide
- Change in mood and marked emotional instability
- Significant grief or stress
- Withdrawal from relationships
- Physical symptoms with emotional cause
- High-risk behaviors
Given that peers are more likely to know of a school-aged adolescent’s suicidal intention, school-based suicide prevention programs are a key component of attempts to decrease the incidence of teen suicide. Contagion–the phenomenon in which one suicide facilitates suicide in another person–and clustering–a series of suicides that take place at nearly the same time and place–are also of significant concern to schools. Strategies where the initial suicide is not glorified, yet students are encouraged to discuss their feelings about the incident, are encouraged in schools by suicide prevention organizations. While memorial services are encouraged, permanent memorials such as planting a tree, creating a plaque, or dedicating a yearbook to the individual who committed suicide are discouraged.
It is difficult to obtain reliable statistics on people who engage in self-harm, because this behavior is often a private act committed by individuals who are unwilling to seek professional help. The most common form of self-harm is skin cutting, because people can choose to inflict harm parts of the body that can be covered up by clothing. Other methods include burning, self-hitting, scratching, hair pulling, and interfering with wound healing. Eating disorders can also be considered as a form of self-harm. The most extreme methods of self-harm include removal of the eye and amputation of limbs or genitals.
The motivations of people who deliberately and repetitively damage their bodies with little to no suicidal intent often center on religious and sexual themes. According to Favazza and Rosenthal (1993), the behavior acts as a form of rapid relief from psychological distress and often is performed as a means to cope with tension and anxiety, depression and emptiness, feelings of numbness, anger and aggression, feelings of alienation, self-hatred or guilt, and intense emotional pain.
Self-harm is also a method used to gain control over one’s body, and to maintain a sense of security or feeling of uniqueness. It may be a continuation of previous abuse patterns or a way to obtain a feeling of euphoria. Finally, self-harm could be a symptom of a more severe mental disorder. One study found that 71% of respondents described it as an addiction.
Research suggests that the practice of skin cutting is most common among high school girls, with adolescents being more likely to engage in this behavior if their friends do. While females report higher incidences of self-harm, this difference may simply reflect the fact that females are more willing to seek help. Self-harming behaviors typically begin at around age 14, peaking in the 16- to 25-year-old age group. Although the practice may continue for decades, treatment may enable adolescents to learn better coping strategies and grow out of their self-harming behaviors.
Hazing is the humiliating initiation into a club or group whereby a person completes a ritualistic test that usually involves physical or emotional injury. It can be divided into three categories: subtle hazing (generally acceptable behaviors that serve to embarrass new members), harassment hazing (behaviors that cause emotional or physical discomfort), and violent hazing. Although not all hazing is violent, 22% of students have participated in dangerous hazing practices. With the exception of Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, Michigan, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Wyoming, each U.S. state has anti-hazing legislation in effect. Despite the widespread existence of such legislation, violent hazing rituals–including extreme alcohol consumption, savage beatings or paddling, burning, bondage, and exposure to extreme weather conditions–persist in many high schools.
There has been a long tradition of hazing in group initiation. Supporters claim the practice promotes team bonding, which in turn allows teams to work together more effectively; people who do not become truly committed to the endeavor through hazing are likely to have weaker bonds to the group, it is argued. While there is very little research in support of this theory, Stephen Sweet, a sociology professor at New York State University, argues that hazing is not illogical and satisfies a need to belong, thereby counteracting the sense of isolation felt by many students.
Although thought to take place mainly among male college students who are members of athletic teams or fraternities, research shows that dangerous practices of hazing are as prevalent among high school students (22%) as they are among college students (21%). While males are more at risk of hazing, this practice is actually common among high school students of both genders. A recent study found that 48% of U.S. high school students had undergone a hazing ritual so as to join a group or organization, with 24% joining an athletic team; 16% a peer group or gang; 8% a music, art, or theater group; and 7% a church group. Despite the large number of students who engaged in this behavior, only 14% recognized the activity as hazing. Although it may be framed as a bonding experience by the perpetrators, hazing can be a dangerous activity and cultural norms often prevent victims from speaking out or refusing to participate.
- Allan, E. J., & Madden, M. (2008). Hazing in view: College students at risk. Retrieved from http://umaine.edu/hazingresearch/
- Center for Suicide Prevention. (2001). A closer look at self-harm, p. 43. Retrieved from ftp://ftp.psyke.org/psyke.org/collection/articles/siec_alert_43.pdf
- Center for Suicide Prevention. (2004). School memorials after suicide: Helpful or harmful?, p. 54. Retrieved from http://www.sprc.org/sites/sprc.org/files/library/Alert54.pdf
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- Shneidman, E. (1993). Suicide as psychache: A clinical approach to self-destructive behavior. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Sweet, S. (2004). Understanding fraternity hazing. In H. Nuwer (Ed.), The hazing reader (pp. 1-13). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.