When a Florida judge this summer sentenced three former Florida A&M University (FAMU) students to 10 years probation for their role in an illegal university band hazing activity, the action was a harsh reminder of how a prank-gone-wild can damage, if not end, the lives of the participants and tarnish an institution.
In sparing the young men — Aaron Golson, Benjamin McNamee and Darryl Cearnel — prison, Circuit Judge Renee A. Roche told those who were urging prison time “… the brand of felony on these young men is a substantial punishment that perhaps can never be undone,” according the Orlando Sentinel, which covered the sentencing.
The judge’s assessment echoed others around the nation.
Indeed, the former students, part of a group of 12 charged in the November 19, 2011, murder-by-hazing of 26-year-old fellow FAMU band member Robert Champion, may be free from prison, despite what Champion’s family and supporters wanted. Still, the probation has restrictions and their felony conviction is a lifelong tag that bars them from a long list of opportunities including the right to vote.
The FAMU incident was not the first nor last of its kind, say anti-hazing organization leaders and college officials who focus on the issue. Still, it has drawn more attention and legal actions to stop hazing and spurred more efforts to show the harms of the widely practiced, loosely defined, centuries-old act of testing the personal mettle of a person or group of people seeking to participate in an organization.
“It’s [hazing] being reported more and tolerated less,” said Emily Pualwan, executive director of Hazing Prevention.Org, the small group of academics who started Hazing Prevention Week a few years ago.
This year, the organization has set next week, September 21 through 25, as National Hazing Prevention Week, with a small number of institutions staging educational events to focus on the practice and its issues.
Hazing, as generally defined by legal, academic and health authorities across the country, is a word used for decades to describe any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule and risks emotional and/or physical harm to a person, members of a group or team, regardless of their willingness to participate.
Pualwan says the added visibility does not necessarily means acts of hazing are occurring any less than before the FAMU tragedy. Like other actions generally considered by many to be offensive yet ignored, there is a heightened awareness and growing public distaste for hazing, she says.
For sure, the sense of urgency that consumed FAMU and much of higher education in the weeks and months after the band-hazing disaster appears to have subsided in many respects. A proposed tough 2012 federal law, the Halting Hazing Act, died a quiet death. It had drawn major attention at the 2012 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference.
There have since been several college-related hazing deaths across the nation, including a widely reported drowning in 2013 of two Virginia State University students participating in an off-campus group’s dangerous and illegal river-crossing initiation.
This week, a Pennsylvania grand jury in Monroe County recommended charges be brought against 37 members of a fraternity at New York City’s Baruch College in connection with the December 2013 death of 19-year-old Chun “Michael” Deng.
According to the Pocono Mountain Regional Police Department, Deng was among a small group of pledges for Pi Delta Psi who were on a weekend fraternity retreat in the scenic Pocono Mountains area. Deng and the other pledges were ordered to carry a bag packed with sand across a field blindfolded.
During the march, Deng suffered blunt trauma with blows to his head, torso and thighs, according to the police report. Five of the 37 students to be indicted face murder charges, authorities told several news media outlets reporting on the incident.
While Congress opted to stay out of the hazing matter when it let the proposed 2012 hazing bill die, many states have adopted and tightened their laws and regulations regarding hazing in public and private institutions. In some cases, so-called zero tolerance hazing laws include elementary, junior and high schools. Observers say that reflects lawmakers acting on studies that have found many students enter college with an awareness of hazing from their high school years.
Today, some 44 states have laws that make it a crime to engage in hazing, according to StopHazing.Org, the Maine-based thinktank. Penalties vary by state and range from misdemeanor to felony to cash fines or a combination of them.
“Attention is growing, but we still need much more understanding and awareness,” says Dr. Elizabeth Allan, a professor of higher education at the University of Maine and president of StopHazing.Org. “We are still in the nascent stages,” of getting hazing addressed as much as other forms of harm such as bullying.
More and more institutions of higher learning are directing more of their attention to hazing practices, says Allan and other college administration and organization officials focusing on the issue. The extent of the efforts vary from one institution to the next institution and organization, in part depending on whether a tragic incident or civil lawsuit against an institution or group has spurred them into action, say those interviewed.
FAMU, for example, had been known for decades for its student-driven hazing activities. It was not until the publicly embarrassing tragedy four years ago that the high-profile Tallahassee-based four-year institution took dramatic steps, including relieving its president and legendary band director from their jobs, and set about creating a zero-tolerance culture when it came to hazing at the school.
“The urgency has died down but not the importance,” says attorney Bryan Smith, special assistant to the FAMU vice president of student affairs and university ombudsman.
Smith is one of a team of new university staffers brought in after the Champion death to help the university do a top-to-bottom restructuring of the university’s band program, campus code of conduct rules, and administrative procedures for handling and adjudicating complaints of hazing anywhere on campus.
FAMU’s administrative leadership ranks, its rules and procedures are not changing at the roller-coaster speed of the months immediately following Champion’s death, says Smith. The focus now is on institutionalizing new ways of thinking on campus about the kind of conduct and culture that makes zero tolerance of hazing a commonly shared value.
While many schools are implementing structural and operational changes that stress a zero tolerance for hazing, many Greek letter organizations are also taking actions.
The major group of sororities and fraternities that make up to so-called “Divine Nine” at historically Black colleges and universities are moving toward eliminating practices in their college campus chapters that allowed or tolerated actions and conduct that used to be considered acceptable, even if offensive.
“All of the ‘Divine Nine’ are having to reevaluate our development of membership,” says Dr. David Hood, an associate dean at North Carolina Central University and adviser to its Kappa Alpha Psi campus chapter. “We’re at a crossroads now. If our organizations don’t get our intake process right, we are going to be obsolete.”
Asserting new members are the lifeblood of undergraduate-level Greek letter clubs, Hood says various groups are considering or implementing various new “intake” rules and guidelines for new members. They range from increasing minimum grade point averages to qualify for membership to detailing what kind of actions and conduct are encouraged and not acceptable for inclusion in probation and initiation activities.
Aside from Divine Nine initiatives, NCCU is “rebranding and redefining intake processes” for groups on its campus, including development of a mandatory training program for all students interested in joining a sorority or fraternity organizations.
Other institutions are taking similar steps, says Hood who, in addition to his responsibilities at NCCU, is president-elect of the Association of Deans and Directors of University Colleges and Undergraduate Studies. “You don’t have the drama [today as in recent years] because the campuses are being more clear,” says Hood. “I know the campuses are being more direct with students.”
A group of eight colleges and universities across the nation have organized the Hazing Prevention Consortium, a three-year project aimed at putting together an “evidence” base for “hazing prevention” on college campuses. The eight are Cornell University, the University of Kentucky, Lehigh University, Texas A&M University, the University of Arizona, the University of Central Florida, the University of Maine and the University of Virginia.
Separately, FAMU has funded two studies exploring hazing with the objective of helping identify some best practices to curb and halt it.
The North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) has formed a Presidential Commission on Hazing Awareness and Prevention. The commission of fraternal and higher education leaders and researchers has been asked to research and develop “innovative strategies” to increase awareness and prevent hazing on college campuses, says William Foran, NIC vice president of university relations for the trade association of 74 men’s fraternities worldwide.
The group considers the hazing issue “a top priority,” Foran says. He says the commission has been working for more than a year and will complete its work by April 1, 2016.
Whether the anti-hazing messages are connecting or being widely understood by their target audience — high school and college students — is another issue.
“We want to make sure no other parents have to go through what we are going through,” say Pam Champion, whose son, 26-year-old Robert, was the FAMU hazing-gone-wild victim. “It’s something we think about everyday,” she said of her and husband Gerald Champion, Robert’s father.
“You wake up everyday thinking of this,” says Gerald Champion.
The two Georgia residents say their son’s tragic death has mobilized them to try to help other parents of future and current high school and college students understand hazing’s downside and the responsibility of schools and parents to do all they can to help a child avoid their nightmare.
It could be a hard sell for the young, however, with no real history they know of to relate to the warnings. A case in point was one of this school year’s freshman orientation sessions at FAMU.
When the discussion came up about campus safety issues, including hazing, school officials were taken by surprise when several of the students, who were eighth or ninth graders when the drum major was killed, said they had never heard of the hazing incident there or Robert Champion.
For the teachers and students, it was an additional teachable moment.