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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD), including each of the military services, and the Coast Guard have issued policies to address hazing, but generally do not know the extent to which their policies have been implemented. The military services' and Coast Guard's policies define hazing similarly to DOD and include servicemember training requirements. The military service and Coast Guard policies also contain guidance, such as responsibilities for policy implementation and direction on avoiding hazing in service customs and traditions, beyond what is included in DOD's policy. However, DOD and the Coast Guard generally do not know the extent to which their policies have been implemented because most of the services and the Coast Guard have not conducted oversight through regular monitoring of policy implementation. The Marine Corps conducts inspections of command hazing policy on issues such as providing servicemembers with information on the hazing policy and complying with hazing incident reporting requirements. While these inspections provide Marine Corps headquarters officials with some information they can use to conduct oversight of hazing policy implementation, they do not necessarily cover all aspects of hazing policy implementation. Without routinely monitoring policy implementation, DOD, the Coast Guard, and the military services may not have the accountability needed to help ensure efforts to address hazing are implemented consistently.

DOD and the Coast Guard have limited visibility over hazing incidents involving servicemembers. Specifically, the Army, the Navy, and the Marine Corps track data on reported incidents of hazing, but the data are not complete and consistent due to varying tracking methods that do not always include all reported incidents. For example, until October 2015, the Army only tracked cases investigated by criminal investigators or military police, while the Navy required reports on substantiated hazing cases and the Marine Corps required reports on both substantiated and unsubstantiated cases. The Air Force and Coast Guard do not require the collection of hazing incident data, and instead have taken an ad hoc approach to compiling relevant information to respond to requests for such data. In the absence of guidance on hazing data collection, DOD and the Coast Guard do not have an accurate picture of reported hazing incidents across the services. In addition, DOD and the Coast Guard have not evaluated the prevalence of hazing. An evaluation of prevalence would provide information on the extent of hazing beyond the limited data on reported incidents, and could be estimated based on survey responses, as DOD does in the case of sexual assault. Service officials said that currently, reported hazing incidents are the primary indicator of the extent of hazing. However, data obtained through other sources suggest that hazing may be more widespread in DOD and the Coast Guard than the current reported numbers. For example, GAO analysis of organizational climate survey results from 2014 for the military services and the Coast Guard found that about 12 percent of respondents in the junior enlisted ranks indicated their belief that such incidents occur in their units. Although these results do not measure the prevalence of hazing incidents, they yield insights into servicemember perceptions of hazing, and suggest that an evaluation of the extent of hazing is warranted. Without evaluating the prevalence of hazing within their organizations, DOD and the Coast Guard will be limited in their ability to effectively target their efforts to address hazing.

Why GAO Did This Study

Initiations and rites of passage can instill esprit de corps and loyalty and are included in many traditions throughout DOD and the Coast Guard. However, at times these, and more ad hoc activities, have included cruel or abusive behavior that can undermine unit cohesion and operational effectiveness.

Congress included a provision in statute for GAO to report on DOD, including each of the military services, and Coast Guard policies to prevent, and efforts to track, incidents of hazing. This report addresses the extent to which DOD and the Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have (1) developed and implemented policies to address incidents of hazing, and (2) visibility over hazing incidents involving servicemembers. GAO reviewed hazing policies; assessed data on hazing incidents and requirements for and methods used to track them; assessed the results of organizational climate surveys that included questions on hazing; conducted focus groups with servicemembers during site visits to two installations selected based on available hazing and sexual assault data, among other factors; and interviewed cognizant officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 12 recommendations, among them that DOD and the Coast Guard regularly monitor policy implementation, issue guidance on the collection and tracking of hazing incident data, and evaluate the prevalence of hazing. DOD and DHS concurred with all of GAO's recommendations and have begun taking actions to address them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To enhance and to promote more consistent oversight of efforts within the department to address the incidence of hazing, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to regularly monitor the implementation of DOD's hazing policy by the military services.
Closed - Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation in its written comments on our report. In February 2018, DOD issued a policy on harassment prevention and response in the armed services that defined hazing as one form of harassment, and required each military department secretary to provide a plan to implement the policy. In 2018 DOD began assessing these military department plans for compliance, and conducted the latest assessment in April 2021. In addition, in May 2021 DOD issued a harassment prevention strategy for the armed forces, in which it included an objective to assess the anti-harassment policies of the military departments to ensure they are aligned with DOD policies, and to monitor the implementation of these policies. Taken together these actions demonstrate implementation of our recommendation to regularly monitor implementation of DOD's hazing policy by the military services.
Department of Defense To enhance and to promote more consistent oversight of efforts within the department to address the incidence of hazing, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to require that the Secretaries of the military departments regularly monitor implementation of the hazing policies within each military service.
Closed - Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation in its written comments on our report. In February 2018, DOD issued a policy on harassment prevention and response in the armed forces which included hazing as one form of harassment covered under the policy. The policy required the secretaries of the military departments to take various steps to oversee implementation of their anti-harassment programs, including, among other things, maintain mechanisms to track and analyze information on harassment complaints, verify that commanders conduct climate assessments and take appropriate action, and submit reports on hazing and bullying data. As a result, the military departments will be required to monitor implementation of their own hazing policies, and they and DOD will be better positioned to identify and respond to hazing-related issues.
Department of Defense To improve the ability of servicemembers to implement DOD and service hazing policies, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to establish a requirement for the Secretaries of the military departments to provide additional clarification to servicemembers to better inform them as to how to determine what is or is not hazing. This could take the form of revised training or additional communications to provide further guidance on hazing policies.
Closed - Implemented
After receiving our draft report containing this recommendation, in December 2015 DOD issued a revised policy on hazing which stated that hazing training in the military services must differentiate between hazing (as well as bullying), on the one hand, and appropriate administrative corrective measures, extra military instruction, and command-authorized physical training. As a result, servicemembers will have additional clarification in order to be able to distinguish prohibited hazing and bullying behaviors from accepted military activities.
Department of Defense To promote greater consistency in and visibility over the military services' collection of data on reported hazing incidents and the methods used to track them, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in coordination with the Secretaries of the military departments, to issue DOD-level guidance on the prevention of hazing that specifies data collection and tracking requirements, including the scope of data to be collected and maintained by the military services on reported incidents of hazing.
Closed - Implemented
After receiving our draft report containing this recommendation, in December 2015 DOD issued a revised policy on hazing which specified the scope of data to be collected on hazing incidents by the military services. In addition, DOD subsequently issued a report on hazing in the armed forces covering the period December 23, 2015 to April 25, 2016, which provided a data collection template for hazing, which further elaborates on the intent of our recommendation. As a result, DOD will have more consistent, complete, and comparable data on hazing incidents.
Department of Defense To promote greater consistency in and visibility over the military services' collection of data on reported hazing incidents and the methods used to track them, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in coordination with the Secretaries of the military departments, to issue DOD-level guidance on the prevention of hazing that specifies data collection and tracking requirements, including a standard list of data elements that each service should collect on reported hazing incidents.
Closed - Implemented
After receiving our draft report containing this recommendation, in December 2015 DOD issued a revised policy on hazing which specified the data elements to be collected on hazing incidents by the military services. In addition, DOD subsequently issued a report on hazing in the armed forces covering the period December 23, 2015 to April 25, 2016, which provided a data collection template for hazing, which further elaborates on the intent of our recommendation. As a result, DOD will have more consistent, complete, and comparable data on hazing incidents. .
Department of Defense To promote greater consistency in and visibility over the military services' collection of data on reported hazing incidents and the methods used to track them, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in coordination with the Secretaries of the military departments, to issue DOD-level guidance on the prevention of hazing that specifies data collection and tracking requirements, including definitions of the data elements to be collected to help ensure that incidents are tracked consistently within and across the services.
Closed - Implemented
After receiving our draft report containing this recommendation, in December 2015 DOD issued a revised policy on hazing on hazing which specified the data to be collected on hazing incidents by the military services, and DOD subsequently issued a report on hazing in the armed forces covering the period December 23, 2015 to April 25, 2016, which provided a data collection template for hazing, including definitions of each of the data elements to be collected. As a result, DOD will have more consistent, complete, and comparable data on hazing incidents.
Department of Defense To promote greater visibility over the extent of hazing in DOD to better inform DOD and military service actions to address hazing, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in collaboration with the Secretaries of the Military Departments, to evaluate prevalence of hazing in the military services.
Open
DOD concurred with this recommendation in its written comments on our report. In May 2021, DOD issued its Harassment Prevention Strategy in which it identified "past year prevalence of DOD harassment" as a metric that it will use to assess the effect of prevention activities. However, this does not address our recommendation because DOD has not evaluated prevalence which is an estimate of all hazing incidents. Further, DOD cannot develop a metric using prevalence of hazing incidents until they evaluate the extent of hazing in DOD. We will continue to monitor DOD's efforts to address our recommendation.
United States Coast Guard To enhance and to promote more consistent oversight of the Coast Guard's efforts to address the incidence of hazing, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should regularly monitor hazing policy implementation.
Closed - Implemented
In response to our report, the Coast Guard issued a policy in January 2017 which identified hazing data reporting requirements. Such reporting of hazing data incidents to Coast Guard headquarters will allow the Coast Guard to begin tracking the extent to which its policies to counter hazing are effective. In addition, the Coast Guard policy included a requirement to incorporate hazing awareness training into recruit, officer, and leadership training curriculums. Such training will lead to more thorough implementation of Coast Guard anti-hazing policy. Together, these actions meet the intent of our recommendation and as a result, the Coast Guard will have greater awareness of the extent to which its hazing policies is being implemented.
United States Coast Guard To promote greater consistency in and visibility over the Coast Guard's collection of data on reported hazing incidents and the methods used to track them, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should issue guidance on the prevention of hazing that specifies data collection and tracking requirements, including the scope of the data to be collected and maintained on reported incidents of hazing.
Closed - Implemented
In response to our report, the Coast Guard issued a policy in January 2017 requiring commands to report hazing incidents, including the scope of data to be collected. As a result, the Coast Guard will have more consistent, complete, and comparable data on hazing incidents.
United States Coast Guard To promote greater consistency in and visibility over the Coast Guard's collection of data on reported hazing incidents and the methods used to track them, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should issue guidance on the prevention of hazing that specifies data collection and tracking requirements, including a standard list of data elements to be collected on reported hazing incidents.
Closed - Implemented
In response to our report, the Coast Guard issued a policy in January 2017 requiring commands to report hazing incidents, including a standard list of data elements. As a result, the Coast Guard will have more consistent, complete, and comparable data on hazing incidents.
United States Coast Guard To promote greater consistency in and visibility over the Coast Guard's collection of data on reported hazing incidents and the methods used to track them, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should issue guidance on the prevention of hazing that specifies data collection and tracking requirements, including definitions of the data elements to be collected to help ensure that incidents are tracked consistently within the Coast Guard.
Closed - Implemented
In response to our report, the Coast Guard issued a policy in January 2017 requiring commands to report hazing incidents, definitions of the data elements to be collected. As a result, the Coast Guard will have more consistent, complete, and comparable data on hazing incidents.
United States Coast Guard To promote greater visibility over the extent of hazing in the Coast Guard to better inform actions to address hazing, the Commandant of the Coast Guard should evaluate the prevalence of hazing in the Coast Guard.
Open
DHS concurred with this recommendation in its written comments on our report. In 2017 the Coast Guard surveyed servicemembers on hazing and stated that it planned to, but had not yet conducted an evaluation of prevalence. However, in July 2018, the Coast Guard stated that no further analysis was planned for the 2017 survey data. The Coast Guard stated that a second survey was planned for 2019, but did not identify any plans to evaluate the prevalence of hazing in the Coast Guard. As of October 2020, the Coast Guard has not provided a requested update on the status of the implementation of this recommendation or indicated any ongoing plans to implement it. In July 2021, Coast Guard officials stated that while the Coast Guard has not conducted a formal assessment of the prevalence of hazing in the Coast Guard, it has updated policy and training requirements related to the prevention of hazing. It has also tracked reported hazing incidents and determined that, based on a comparison of reported hazing incidents with other types of prohibited behaviors, hazing in the Coast Guard is minimal, both comparatively and on an absolute basis. For example, in fiscal year 2020, the Coast Guard officials stated that they recorded 2 unsubstantiated hazing incidents and 1 substantiated incident. As such, Coast Guard officials told us that they do not plan to take any further action because they believe they have met the intent of our recommendation and that it would not be worth the resources to conduct a formal assessment of hazing prevalence. These efforts do not meet the intent of our recommendation since an evaluation of prevalence has not been conducted. Although the Coast Guard has no plans to take further action relative to this recommendation, DOD currently has efforts underway to address harassment, including hazing, within the military services, that may have implications for how the Coast Guard identifies and handles such incidents. We will continue to monitor DOD's efforts to determine what, if any impact it may have on an evaluation of the prevalence of hazing in the Coast Guard, and we will update the recommendation status accordingly.

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