Initiations: how to keep students safe

  • Universities have an average 200 clubs and societies for students to join
  • In recent years, negative media coverage has highlighted the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption and student safety
  • With universities responsible for events that take place on campus, we look at how universities can protect students from harm and their institution from reputational damage

Joining a club or society is one of the first things that many freshers will do at the start of their university life.

With increased instances of initiations and student pranks resulting in severe consequences, we explore where liability lies and what universities are doing to protect students and their reputation.

Many of the UK’s larger universities have upwards of 200 clubs and societies for students to join, offering activities ranging from football to wine tasting, and even skydiving.

While not all clubs and societies hold initiation ceremonies or rituals, for some they are often part of the joining process. Initiations can help build bonds between students with shared interests. However, they also have a reputation, whether deserved or not, for alcohol-fuelled excess and potentially dangerous activity.

In recent years, a number of initiation events have had dramatic and tragic consequences where students have died following an evening of binge drinking.

While events that end in tragedy are rare, when excessive alcohol is involved, there is an increased risk of a student being injured, or being involved in an incident in which property is damaged.

Where do liabilities lie?

Although universities often have limited control over initiation ceremonies or student pranks – and may not even be aware that some events are taking place – they could still find themselves involved in a claim should an incident occur, irrespective of where the legal liability rests.

Students need to be made aware there is the potential for them to be found legally liable for a claim where they have acted negligently. If a student acts negligently against the advice of the university they may be found responsible without the ability to claim financial recourse through the university’s insurance.

Clearly, universities can’t be expected to be involved with the minutiae of every event their students organise nor responsible for their behaviour. However, they still run the risk of suffering enormous reputational damage should an incident occur.

The rise of social media means that word of an incident can spread extremely quickly – often accompanied by pictures or video footage – compounding the risk of reputational damage.

Universities should therefore ensure they issue guidance on safe practice to students.

How can universities minimise initiation ceremony risks?

An approach some universities have taken is to ban initiation events altogether.

Newcastle University has taken that step, and has listed types of activity that could lead to an individual facing disciplinary action, including arranging an event that includes “a requirement or clear expectation of participants to drink alcohol or to take other substances”.

While there is no guarantee that students will adhere to such rules, universities should be seen to be doing all they can to mitigate the risks associated with initiation ceremonies.

Here are six steps universities can take:

  1. Be proactive in warning students about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption and substance abuse
  2. Warn students about other long-term risks – for example an embarrassing incident that is shared on social media could damage their career prospects
  3. Communicate these messages through a wide variety of channels, including email and social media
  4. Provide support/advice services for students who may feel pressurised into taking part in initiation events
  5. Keep up-to-date contact lists for all official university clubs and associations
  6. If allowing initiation ceremonies to take place, work with clubs/associations to establish a clear set of health and safety guidelines to adhere to, including a robust risk assessment.

Clubs and societies bring enormous benefits to students – helping them to build friendships, learn new skills and enhance their CVs.

Universities therefore have an important role to play in ensuring clubs and societies understand their responsibilities to their members.

By being proactive in mitigating the risks involved in initiation events, universities can be satisfied they are doing all they can to protect their students from harm and their institution from a legal claim or reputational damage.