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vigil A vigil for Samuel Mason, who died in 2010 during a fraternity hazing at Radford University in Virginia; Robert Champion (right) was beaten to death last November during a band hazing at Florida A&M. (Justin Cook / The Roanoke Times)

Hazed to Death

The fatal beating of a college marching-band leader in Florida has turned a national spotlight on hazing

Like many musicians at Florida A&M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion was proud of the school’s famed “Marching 100” band and felt honored to be a member. The band has won a closetful of awards over nearly seven decades, played at Super Bowl halftime shows, and marched in the inaugural parades of presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

But on the night of Nov. 19, 2011, membership in that elite club cost Champion his life.

In what police have deemed a hazing incident, Champion was brutally beaten by fellow band members on a parked bus just hours after performing at a school football game in Orlando. When he collapsed, Champion was taken to a hospital, where he died. The cause of death, according to the autopsy, was shock from severe bleeding after suffering multiple blunt-trauma blows to the head and body. A criminal investigation of four band members is under way, and Champion’s parents filed a lawsuit in February against the bus company, claiming the driver turned a blind eye to the beating.

RITE OF PASSAGE?

The case has focused a national spotlight on hazing, the practice of requiring recruits—and sometimes even existing members—of a group to endure emotional or physical abuse as a condition of membership. Hazing rituals date back thousands of years and occur in many countries, including India (where it’s called “ragging”), Britain, and Japan.

In the U.S., hazing has long been a rite of passage for initiation into some fraternities and sororities; college and high school sports teams and clubs; and the military. In a 2008 national study conducted by the University of Maine, 55 percent of college students and 47 percent of high school students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations reported being hazed.

Fraternity initiation rites can range from silly—like forcing recruits to walk around campus in boxer shorts or do errands for senior members—to dangerous—like requiring them to do push-ups on broken glass or play drinking games.

Defenders of some hazing traditions believe the experience of shared torment promotes bonding and builds character and discipline. But Hank Nuwer, an anti-hazing advocate who has written several books on the subject, thinks the rituals often go too far, especially when alcohol is involved. “It’s the deadliness, the death, the degradation that really concerns me,” he says.

More than 100 college students in the U.S. have died in hazing-related incidents since 1970, according to Nuwer. Though engaging in dangerous kinds of hazing is illegal in 44 states and at many universities, the problem persists, partly because initiates, also called pledges, are often reluctant to speak up.

“This is an issue, this is happening, and something needs to be done about it,” says Josh Strange, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Kentucky and a member of Phi Gamma Delta, a fraternity that has policies against hazing. Strange is part of a coalition that won a $10,000 grant to further hazing prevention on his campus. Kentucky is one of many schools that have seen incidents of excessive hazing leading to suspensions of fraternities or revocations of their charters. Just last month, Binghamton University in New York banned all sorority and fraternity pledging through the spring because of what it called “an alarmingly high number of serious hazing complaints.”

Strange says many freshmen join fraternities without understanding what initiation will entail. And many endure the worst kinds of abuse because they know most fraternities won’t accept anyone who has pledged elsewhere.

“They don’t think they can go anywhere else,” says Strange, “so they’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I made it this far, just stick it out and just deal with it.’ ”

HAZING & ALCOHOL

Forced alcohol consumption plays a role in many hazing fatalities, as it did in the apparent hazing death of George Desdunes, a 19-year-old member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He died of alcohol poisoning in February 2011. Cornell revoked the fraternity’s campus charter, and Desdunes’s parents have filed a lawsuit against the national fraternity. They allege that their son’s frat brothers forced him to participate in a mock “kidnapping” game in which he was tied up and given large quantities of alcohol. At the time of his death, according to the suit, Desdunes’s blood alcohol level was five times the legal limit for driving.

Alcohol was also a factor in the 2010 death of Samuel Mason, a 20-year-old sophomore at Radford University in Virginia. Mason, who was pledging Tau Kappa Epsilon, died shortly after participating in a hazing ritual that required guzzling an entire bottle of liquor in an hour. As part of a plea deal in December 2011, six of Mason’s fraternity brothers avoided manslaughter charges and jail time by pleading guilty to purchasing alcohol for a minor and hazing him, misdemeanors in Virginia. Each was suspended from school and fined $1,000.

For Nuwer, that verdict is too soft, indicative of ineffectual and vague laws that have frustrated efforts to end hazing.

“Even if you have a [state] hazing law,” he says, it’s difficult “for a prosecutor to win when juries are confused, judges are confused by it, or they have the attitude that young people need to sow their wild oats.” Nuwer is pushing for a federal law that would require students to report hazing incidents to a central agency rather than just to universities, which often keep incidents quiet to avoid bad publicity.

Josh Strange says he’ll keep working to end hazing at the University of Kentucky. But he also wants students to understand that many clubs and fraternities, like his, don’t practice hazing, and that finding a group that promotes positive values can be a vital part of the college experience.

“Joining a fraternity was the best decision of my life,” says Strange. “It connects you to a group of people in a way that you can’t really put into words.”

This article originally appeared in the May 14, 2012 issue of The New York Times Upfront. For more from Upfront, click here.

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