Pretending that initiations don’t go on is not the answer. People will not respond to an amnesty this early on, but the university’s stance is moving in the right direction.
Throughout my time on club committee, I have become well acquainted with the issue of initiations. Whilst attitudes vary between clubs and individuals, I think that there is no greater disparity that that between what a club or committee member will tell anyone (other than those they deeply trust) and what their real opinion is regarding the practices. Ask any club committee member about initiations and they will tell you that they disagree with initiations wholeheartedly and would never practice them as a club.
I believe that in reality, these people have likely not only helped to organise these events, but made some of their best memories and forged lifelong bonds during them. This is not to say that I necessarily agree with some of the things that go on during the age old tradition that is ‘initiations’, but I do believe that the University’s stance on the matter has, rather than stopping them, created culture of fear induced secrecy around the events that actually results them being more dangerous.
When addressing this issue, it is impossible not to reflect on the events that lead to the tragic death of Newcastle student, Ed Farmer, two years ago. Clearly, a blanket ban on initiations and threat of disciplinary action was not enough to prevent the death of a student and therefore university policy has to change.
Some recent inquest revelations have certainly illustrated to me that there was an imbalance of priorities within the agriculture society at the time, where cover-up and denial occurred at grave cost. Texts reading “deny, deny, deny” which circulated following the incident shows that fear of consequence outweighed a human and emotional response to the tragedy.
It is known that Mr Farmer was nervous and seen to be ‘physically shaking’ prior to engaging in his initiation activities. It is quite possible that he felt unable to voice his concern and seek advice from his peers outside of the society for fear of the university finding out about the event. Witness testimony stating that freshers were told prior to Mr Farmer’s death “to be mindful of what [they] told people” (about the event) suggests that senior members were well aware of the potential disciplinary repercussions of their actions and took measures to ensure that the event would not be discussed. It seems that no adequate measures to ensure safety and wellbeing were taken.
When a whole club or society is terrified by the potential disciplinary consequences of an activity, yet somehow it must still go on, it points to a few things: Firstly, the activity must be very important to the club. Secondly, whoever steps up to organise the event is likely to be an inherently risky person. Thirdly, the organisers and participants of the activity will not ask for advice, or face criticism from any community wider than that club. This combination means that what starts out as a misjudgement can easily perpetuate into a disaster.
Social secs are often second year students who want to give back to a club they love, and at the start of the year, when initiations (or ‘welcome drinks’ if they’d rather brand it that way) occur, they are inevitably inexperienced. I don’t think it is fair to put these students in the position of feeling duty bound by their role to deliver memorable and bond-building events whilst personally upholding responsibility for each student’s safety and welfare, without any guidance at all.
It is my opinion that ‘initiation ceremonies’ will not cease to exist and are not the problem: This is a matter of judgement on the part of the senior club members. Only when the activities involved are dangerous or there is unacceptable pressure to participate do ‘initiations’ become a problem. From a former social sec, I have learnt that prior to the initiation ban, ceremonies would be photographed, videoed and shared on social media, open for criticism by the wider public. This forced clubs to consider their own reputation and put more care into the organisation and safe delivery of the events.
Personally, I don’t think that there is yet enough trust between the University and its’ clubs for an initiation amnesty to succeed. I do, however think that we have to re-open honest conversation about ‘initiation’ practices. Providing the right kind of support to committee and senior club members, for example information on spotting warning signs such as those Mr. Farmer exhibited, and guidance on how to facilitate bonding in ways that don’t involve coercion or drinking, is the only way make a real change and prevent future tragedies from happening.