Hazing in fire academies: Legal and practical considerations

Understanding the difference between hazing, bullying and training in the academy setting


Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of articles in which Curt Varone will address questions on important fire service legal issues. If you would like to submit a question, please email Shannon Pieper at spieper@lexipol.com.

Question: I am a deputy chief in a mid-sized career fire department. Our local college has a fire academy that runs recruit classes twice a year for a semester each. The academy instructors are all current and former firefighters from area departments. For years, the academy has had a reputation of being a good academy but very, very rough. I have had very little interaction with the academy, just know the reputation.

My son just started the academy and came home crushed after the first night of class. Apparently, the instructors on the first night of class spent the entire four hours yelling, belittling, cussing and in a few cases throwing things at the recruits. Keep in mind these recruits are not employees of any department; they are students of the college who have paid almost $5,000 to attend this academy. The instructors were spraying them with pressurized water cans and, in a few cases, throwing backpacks onto recruits’ backs while they were doing pushups. This is the first night and I have been told the first month will be like this.

I want to be clear: This is not about my son. This is about the appropriateness of how recruits should be treated. I am afraid of bringing this up to anyone because of the long history of such behavior at this academy, and for fear of my son paying the price.

The challenge facing those responsible for molding individuals into firefighters capable of working cooperatively as members of a team is, how do we build that team-first attitude into recruits without crossing the line? (Photo/Getty by Valerie Loiseleux)
The challenge facing those responsible for molding individuals into firefighters capable of working cooperatively as members of a team is, how do we build that team-first attitude into recruits without crossing the line? (Photo/Getty by Valerie Loiseleux)

My question: Is there case law that has to do with this kind of behavior at academies? From what is being described to me by several former and current recruits, the behavior sounds more like hazing and bullying than it does “training.”

I find it hard to believe in this day and age that a college would tolerate this kind of conduct; it is more common at fire department-run academies. There are plenty of civil lawsuits on hazing and bullying of recruits, but more concerning is something you and the instructors may not have considered: the possibility of criminal charges. The risk of criminal charges should give any instructor pause before engaging in such behavior.

Civil and Criminal Risks

Let’s start with the civil lawsuits related to abusive behavior in fire department academies. The cases fall into two groups:

  1. Recruits who wash out and sue claiming the abuse was associated with a protected class (race, gender, religion, disability, etc.) or some illegal activity (assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, retaliation, civil rights violations, etc.), and contributed to the person failing out of the program. See, for example: San Francisco Fire Launches Probe into Racism at Academy
  2. Recruits who were physically injured and/or killed by instructors who pushed them too far. See, for example: Texas Suit Alleges Military Bootcamp Style Training Caused Fatal Heat Stroke

The criminal side is even more worrisome, particularly for academies that are associated with colleges. Here is one example of a criminal anti-hazing law from Missouri:

State of Missouri Anti-Hazing Law
§578.360. Definitions.

As used in sections 578.360 to 578.365, unless the context clearly requires otherwise, the following terms mean:
(1) “Educational institution”, a public or private college or university;
(2) “Hazing”, a willful act, occurring on or off the campus of an educational institution, directed against a student or a prospective member of an organization operating under the sanction of an educational institution, that recklessly endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student or prospective member for the purpose of initiation or admission into or continued membership in any such organization to the extent that such person is knowingly placed at probable risk of the loss of life or probable bodily or psychological harm. Acts of hazing shall include:
(a) Any activity which recklessly endangers the physical health or safety of the student or prospective member, including but not limited to physical brutality, whipping, beating, branding, exposure to the elements, forced consumption of any food, liquor, drug or other substance or forced smoking or chewing of tobacco products; or
(b) Any activity which recklessly endangers the mental health of the student or prospective member, including but not limited to sleep deprivation, physical confinement, or other extreme stress-inducing activity; or
(c) Any activity that requires the student or prospective member to perform a duty or task which involves a violation of the criminal laws of this state or any political subdivision in this state.

§578.363. Colleges and universities to have written policy prohibiting hazing. Each educational institution in this state shall adopt a written policy prohibiting hazing by any organization operating under the sanction of the institution.

§578.365.Hazing–consent not a defense – penalties
1. A person commits the crime of hazing if he knowingly participates in or causes hazing, as it is defined in section 578.360.
2. Hazing is a class A misdemeanor, unless the act creates a substantial risk to the life of the student or prospective member, in which case it is a class C felony.
3. Nothing in sections 578.360 to 578.365 shall he interpreted as creating a new private cause of action against any educational institution.
4. Consent is not a defense to hazing. Section 565.080 does not apply to hazing cases or to homicide cases arising out of hazing activity.

Walking the Line

Having said all of this, some level of “tough love” is necessary in fire academies. Team building and group dynamics are an important part of the process.[1] Kids today are raised as individuals (as they should be). Many have never played team sports or engaged in team-oriented activities. Those who believe, “I will do whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like it, and no one will tell me otherwise” will become inevitable problems for us and our organizations.[2]

The challenge facing those responsible for molding individuals into firefighters capable of working cooperatively as members of a team is, how do we build that team-first attitude into recruits without crossing the line?

For starters, it helps if leaders have thought through the issues and developed policies that establish what is and is not acceptable behavior by instructors. Second, organizations need to invest the time and money in training their instructor corps—not just to be subject-matter competent, but capable of applying appropriate team-building methodology. History has proven that well-intentioned fire service instructors do not necessarily know where the line is with regard to hazing and bullying. Anecdotally, I think too many instructors watch a movie like Full Metal Jacket and try to emulate R. Lee Ermey’s character, Sergeant Hartman.

Walking the line between productively building a cohesive team through shared adversity and bullying is a challenge the military faces as well. Each branch has adopted an approach that defines organizationally sanctioned tough love as a “rite of passage,” while prohibiting hazing and bullying that goes beyond what is sanctioned. They start with a policy, ensure instructors are properly trained, and ensure compliance through oversight.

My guess is the instructors you are referring to think they are on the OK side of the hazing-bullying line. Maybe they are, maybe they are not. From the way you describe it, it sounds like they are pushing things too far. That fact that you, as an experienced firefighter, are raising these concerns makes me think they have gone too far.

The Opposite Effect

One final somewhat counterintuitive thought I would like to share. There are folks who need to be washed out of fire academies. That is an unfortunate fact of life. It is not fun. It is not pleasant. It is reality.

But, the ability of a fire academy, by and through its instructor corps, to wash out those who need to be washed out can be compromised by hazing and bullying behavior.

Here’s what I mean: If a recruit cannot handle the rigors of the job (e.g., too weak to raise ground ladders, claustrophobic, prone to panic, incapable of following orders) but that recruit can point to numerous examples of hazing and bullying behavior by instructors, the legal focus of any case the recruit might bring changes from “Can the person do the job?” to “Was the person the victim of improper hazing and bullying?”

When that happens, those well-intentioned instructors just handed that recruit a gift: the chance to prevail in court and get back into the academy, or perhaps recover monetary damages they otherwise would not be entitled to. It may not dawn on those instructors that their own behavior could lead to the washed-out recruit winning in court, but in reality, it often does.

References

1. Cialdini R. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Harper Business, 2006.
2. Eddy B. 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life. Tarcher Perigee, 2018.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on the Lexipol Fire blog here.

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