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June 16, 2015
By Hank Nuwer

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Publishing an online list of Greek organizations with hazing violations, clear-cut sanctions, anonymous reporting and training are just some of the ways campuses can address hazing at colleges and universities.

 

Common hazing practices include forced drinking, physical abuse and humiliation.

Common hazing practices include forced drinking, physical abuse and humiliation.

There have been more than 170 hazing deaths in collegiate fraternities, sororities, a band, ROTC and sports teams all told. A survey of large and small public and private institutions conducted by University of Maine researchers Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden found that around half of all students in fraternities, clubs, teams and other organizations reported that they had been hazed.

Among the hazing practices uncovered by the researchers were forced or coerced drinking, physical abuse, screaming in so-called lineups, being abandoned in the countryside, nudity, improper touching, paddling and beatings. Deaths at Chico State University and Plattsburgh State University were caused by pledges being forced to drink many gallons of water, an act that severely upset the body chemistry of Matt Carrington and Walter Dean Jennings, the dead pledges.

The 32 National Campus Safety Initiative (32 NCSI) defines hazing as any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and or physical harm, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.

Significantly, punishments for criminal hazing have been historically mild, and in many cases, defendants get no jail time or a very small fine and community service at most. Male fraternities have by far been the most deadly of all groups that haze. To put it into perspective, according to my research, there has been at least one hazing death on a college campus every year from 1970 to 2015.

Press Putting Spotlight on Hazing Fatalities
Hazing deaths typically receive wide attention in media reports. Some of the more notorious cases in recent years demonstrate the wide range of behaviors that have led to campus fatalities.

In 2014, Pi Kappa Phi pledge Armando Villa of California State University Northridge was abandoned barefooted in the Angeles Mountains and died of dehydration and his injuries. Coincidentally, he was the second pledge to die in that same general area. Years earlier, a Pierce College Chi Chi Chi member died in a fall when abandoned there without his prescription glasses.

In 2013, fraternity pledge Mike Deng of Baruch College’s Pi Delta Psi died when body slammed by up to 30 senior members who had been drinking. He was blindfolded when members attacked him, and they waited more than an hour before calling 9-1-1 to get him aid. Although police investigated, no charges have been levied as of May 2015. Similar beating deaths have taken the lives of pledges Harrison Kowiak at Lenoir-Rhyne, Kenny Luong at UC Irvine and J. B. Joynt at Frostburg State University.

In a number of cases, reverse hazing in which pledges haze members to show solidarity have also resulted in deaths. Most recently, George Desdunes perished at Cornell University with a blood alcohol content of .35 when pledges coerced him into drinking shots. Once again, the punishment imposed on the fraternity was light. A judge fined the chapter $12,000 for hazing and other charges.

Sororities also have incurred deaths. Eastern Illinois University sorority member Donna Bedinger died while trying to get inside a moving car after pledges had abandoned her in the country. University of Colorado Kappa Alpha Theta pledge Sherri Ann Clark died of alcohol poisoning in 1985, and at the time, school and sorority officials refused to call the death a form of hazing. Plymouth State University pledge Kelly Nester died in a car accident when she and other pledges were being driven around in a car, and again, an attorney for the sorority members denied that hazing had occurred. Other sorority deaths have occurred in accidents due to sleep deprivation and drowning.

Laws, Organizations Seek to Address the Issue
The 2011 Florida A&M marching band hazing death, however, may have changed forever the tendency of courts to hand out slaps on the wrists. In the wake of the beating death of drum major Robert Champion on a squad bus, hazing ringleader Dante Martin, 27, was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter and could have drawn as much as a 22-year sentencing under Florida’s tough Chad Meredith Act, a law signed in 2005 by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Meredith was a University of Miami fraternity pledge who drowned in a lake during a hazing ritual, and his parents successfully lobbied to get the then-weak Florida law toughened. Florida is one of 44 states that currently have a hazing law, and the Sunshine State’s is by far the harshest, allowing a prosecutor to take a hazer to court for both criminal hazing and manslaughter. [In late June, three more FAMU defendants found guilty in the Robert Champion case will be sentenced].

Among the recommendations drawn up by 32 NCSI, perhaps the most significant is the procedure, adopted by few colleges today, to publish an online record of fraternities and sororities with hazing violations. Douglas Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in suing fraternities and individuals in cases of death or serious injury, has been the most vocal in insisting that publishing all incidents of hazing can help parents make informed decisions when a son or daughter elects to pledge at a Greek organization. With Fierberg’s help, Julia and Scott Starkey persuaded California Polytechnic State University to publish all hazing group convictions on its web page following the alcohol death of their son Carson Starkey.

In addition, 32 NCSI wants all colleges to offer students written hazing enforcement procedures that spell out how administrators will respond to verifiable reports of campus hazing. The organization recommends that institutions provide annual educational programs on hazing. For example, many college campuses bring in speakers every September during National Hazing Prevention Week. This type of approach is advocated by such anti-hazing activist groups as Stophazing.org, HazingPrevention.org and the Antihazing Awareness Movement.

Other 32 NCSI recommendations deal with reporting and communicating procedures. These include:

  • An anonymous reporting system
  • Training students, faculty and staff on how to report hazing incidents
  • Banning alumni found to have encouraged hazing from campus
  • Clear-cut enforced sanctions for hazing ranging from a written warning up to expulsion and referral for prosecution.

 

Secrecy Surrounding Hazing Thwarts Investigations
To be sure, hazing often occurs behind closed doors in utter secrecy, making it difficult for police to build a successful case.

After police in South Carolina interviewed many Sigma Phi Epsilon members from Clemson University following the death of pledge Tucker Hipps who fell off a bridge while on a forbidden early-morning run, police said they could not get an accurate picture of what had led to the tragedy since fraternity members had stonewalled the investigation. The parents of Hipps launched a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the fraternity in hopes of getting answers. Thus far, all they know for certain is that their son angered older members by refusing to bring them breakfast the morning he died.

The guidelines recommended by 32 NCSI would do much to lift the veil of secrecy that often accompanies hazing and address the dangers of hazing overall, thus better protecting every member of a campus community.

 

Hank Nuwer is a professor of journalism at Franklin College and a 32 NCSI Hazing expert. In June of 2015, 32 NCSI, sponsored by the VTV Family Outreach Foundation, an activist organization formed after family members lost their beloved children in the notorious 2007 Virginia Tech school shooting, is releasing “Hazing Indicators” that all colleges can use as a checklist to see how well their anti-hazing policies and procedures stack up. The intent is to help institutions develop a “Best Practices” checklist to eradicate hazing in all collegiate groups. For more information, visit www.32NCSI.org or www.VTVFamilyFoundation.org.