There has been a lot of news coverage lately on hazing, as a result of deaths and subsequent arrests on multiple college campuses around the country. Some high-profile recent hazing charges have included a fraternity hazing death at Cornell, and a marching band hazing death at Florida A&M, both in 2011. There has been a growing push (among adults) for more significant, and more effective, efforts to end hazing, which has long-since been "banned," without a notable reduction in hazing behavior.
In order to make any significant changes in hazing, I think we have to begin by asking how and why it occurs. Hazing is ostensibly a form of initiation - a way of inculcating the group identity into new members. It is most often associated with fraternities, sororities, athletic teams, and marching bands. However, it may be most commonly performed with military recruits (I know I'm making a controversial claim, here, but what else can we call boot camp, where recruits are subject to physical and mental assault to "break them down?").
That explains the why. What about the how? How do normal kids, with sound moral character and prosocial behavior in most areas of their lives, end up hurting each other in the name of group cohesion? We know that social groups can develop "groupthink" - groups already composed of people with some similarity develop shared faulty reasoning that evolves from pressure for uniformity, and suppression of contradictory opinions. Groups also tend to make riskier choices than individuals, and normal individuals have been induced to behave violently toward others as a result of obedience to authority (as in the Milgram experiment), and as a result of social role and distinction between social groups (as in the Stanford Prison Study).
Other factors that may contribute to willingness to participate in hazing parallel domestic violence. Those who have experienced hazing as part of their own initiation into the group may "identify with the aggressor" - in this case, that means adopting the group identity, and ultimately wanting to be like the people who haze them. They may also harbor some anger, however, and express it through the hazing of the next generation of group initiates, perpetuating the "cycle of violence."
So, knowing that group membership is an important source of identity and esteem for humans in general, and that rites of passage may be particularly meaningful during the transition to adulthood, it behooves us to find other ways for young adults to establish group identities and mark transitions without harming each other. Planned team-building activities provide one avenue, but have not proven sufficient to stop hazing.
Changing the mentality of the whole group is a bigger challenge. The only way I can think of to approach it that has the slimmest chance of working is having adults involved with each group facilitate ongoing, frequent discussion of how the group wants to identify itself, its norms and culture, and its traditions, including initiation. The whole group needs to get to a point of endorsing a violence-free process.
It would go a long way toward this end if we as a culture also work to end institutionalized and sanctioned forms of hazing, such as those employed by the military. We need to shift our collective understanding of group identity to preclude and prevent violence.
For more information, see Cornell's hazing website.