For all of the tears shed and pain felt in the aftermath of Robert Champion’s death, it is likely that the practice of hazing will continue. We need only review the number of young men and women who died before Champion took his final breath.
According to figures tallied by Hank Nuwer, an internationally renowned scholar on hazing, an average of one college student per year has died as a result of hazing since the early 1800s.
In October of 2010, Samuel Mason died while pledging for the Fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon at Radford University in Virginia.
“Just 2 years ago, Donnie Wade died trying to join Phi Beta Sigma at Prairie View A&M, but most people know nothing about that case because America has accepted hazing in fraternities and sororities,” says Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College and an expert on hazing.
That said, hazing is such a facet of so many fraternities’ and sororities’ cultural norm that ridding them of the practice would be akin to stripping them of much of their identity.
A recent study titled “Hazing in View: College Students At Risk “based on the analysis of more than 11,400 respondents across 53 colleges and universities and more than 300 interviews reveals how accepted hazing is.
Fifty-five percent of students involved in clubs, sports and organizations experience hazing, the study found. Ninety-five percent of the time, these students did not report the incidents. What is more telling is that 25 percent of coaches or organizational advisers knew of the activity. And nine out of ten students who have experienced hazing do not consider themselves to have been hazed, according to the study.
So in the wake of the FAMU tragedy and yesterday’s arrests of three of it’s Marching 100 band members for allegedly hazing Bria Shante Hunter, why do so many young people choose to subject themselves to physical torture that can lead to permanent, physical harm or death?
“Part of it has to do with a strong belief system that it is needed to select, screen, and inculcate the types of members these organizations want, and probably need,” says Gregory Parks, assistant professor of law and hazing expert at Wake Forest University. “For example, many members believe hazing is needed to facilitate commitment to other members and to the organization.”
What is more telling of this strong belief is the number of young people who find hazing acceptable. More than 60 percent of college students believe it is important to tolerate psychological stress while joining an fraternity and 32 percent feel physical pain is an acceptable part of the pledging process, according to “Inside Hazing,” a study conducted by hazing scholar, Susan Lipman, M.D.
The definition of hazing, as explained on Lipman’s website, is “a process, based on a tradition that is used by groups to discipline and to maintain a hierarchy (i.e., a pecking order). Regardless of consent, the rituals require individuals to engage in activities that are physically and psychologically stressful. These activities can be humiliating, demeaning, intimidating, and exhausting, all of which results in physical and/or emotional discomfort. Hazing is about group dynamics and proving one’s worthiness to become a member of the specific group.”
More explicitly, it can mean forcing someone to drink against his or her will, subjecting a pledge to physical pain or emotionally abusing someone to the point of exhaustion.
The method of hazing that took Champion’s life was reportedly a gauntlet of beatings by fellow band members who punished him for dropping a baton during a performance.
Nuwer says the practice is becoming more perverse, making the difference between bullying and hazing less clear.
“You can see the abuse of prisoners of war; the sexting; the texting insults,” Nuwer says. “It seems to go hand and glove with hazing. People are not hiding their sadistic streaks. They are coming out in very public ways and they are not getting the bad feedback from peers that you might have expected some years ago. How else to you explain sodomies at the high school level? How else do you explain a gauntlet where somebody’s fists had to have gone crashing into Mr. Champion’s solar plexus to be able to cause a death? He’s a pretty big guy.”
Before Champion’s death, a former FAMU clarinet player, Ivery Luckey, was hospitalized after reporting he was paddled roughly 300 times in 1998. Another FAMU band member, Marcus Parker, suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle three years later.
What makes Champion’s death and the alleged hazing behind it more disturbing is Luckey’s response to his own severe beating.
“[Hazing] goes on at every university,” Luckey is quoted as saying in a Lakeland Ledger article published on Nov. 22, 1998. “This was pretty much by choice. If you want to be in a fraternity or the cool part of the band, that’s kind of what you do.”
That same article also reports that now fired band director, Julian White, reported Luckey’s incident to university officials after visiting him in the hospital. It makes you wonder if, in fact, White’s warnings were ignored and that he was nothing more than a scapegoat in the aftermath of Champion’s death.
And what about the students who knew about the hazing? Should they be culpable, too? Kimbrough says hazing prevention is not only in the hands of the fraternities or sororities. It is an institutional issue that has to be taken seriously by administrators, deans and faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and most of all, students.
“Most hazing takes place away from campus at odd hours,” Kimbrough says. “Students know about it, but generally subscribe to this “no snitch” philosophy. And that’s why hazing persists.”
Florida A&M’s marching band has suspended all of its performances indefinitely. But suspensions do not seem to stop future hazing incidents from happening. It appears that no matter how many people die or are injured permanently from hazing, the aggressors of hazing become more brazen and barbaric in administering it. And the victims still seem to feel it is OK.
When a reporter asked Bria Shante Hunter, the latest victim of alleged hazing in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 band, why she endured the alleged hazing, she gave a disturbing reply. “So we can be accepted,” she said. “If you don’t do anything, then, it’s like you’re lame.” Three fellow band members have been arrested and charged with all hazing her.
Experts say the only way to stop hazing is to bring serious criminal charges against those who do it.
There are hazing laws on the books in some states. California, for example, has Matt’s Law that allows felony prosecutions when serious injuries or death occurs as a result of hazing. Matt’s Law was named in memory of Matt Carrington, a 21-year-old California State University, Chico student who died in the basement of a fraternity house during a hazing ritual.
Nuwer feels none of these deaths will stop the trend of hazing and says it has the potential to get worse, unless fraternities and sororities know serious jail time is waiting for them.
“I think we are going to start edging towards what the Philippines had which is life sentences for hazing deaths,” Nuwer says. “When that happens, two things will occur: 1) People will turn to true criminals. They would throw bodies into the water. In the Philippines, they have hidden bodies in forests because they knew what the punishments were going to be. 2) [The life sentences] would put fear in people. But, at the present time, with two years maximum for the Florida A&M for Kappa Alpha Psi three years ago being the bench mark [is not enough]. Compare that to 18 years.”
Perhaps the prospect of extensive time, or worse yet, life behind bars would finally convince fraternities and sororities that hazing is not worth their freedom. No charges have been made in Champion’s death. And even if charges are brought against those who helped to caused Champion’s death, it seems unlikely they will serve life sentences.
Robert Champion, on the other hand, is already serving his.
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