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Friday, December 2, 2011

Death by Hazing: Will the Band Play On?

     Florida A & M drum major Robert Campion, on November 19, collapsed and died on the bus following a football game in Orlando, Florida. The 26-year-old junior from Decatur, Georgia, pursuant to a post-game hazing ritual, had walked through a gauntlet of fists. Prior to his death he had vomitted and stuggled to breathe. While the police have linked Champion's death to the hazing incident, the authorities have not released the results of his autopsy.

     The president of Florida A & M fired Julian White, the longtime director of the school's marching band. He also placed the 375-member band on indefinate suspension. (The president later dismissed four students from the university.) Julian White, the 71-year-old former director of the band, in denying responsibility for the tragedy and potential homicide, insisted that over the past twenty years he has warned school administrators about the hazing problem. Mr. White believes the university is making him a scapegoat in the matter and has demanded to be rehired. (The fact this scandal is unfolding in the wake of the Penn State mess and coach Paterno's dismissal has probably worked against Mr. White.)

     On November 27, Robert Champion's parents, in a news conference, announced plans to sue the university. The attorney representing the future plaintiffs said the parents are bringing this action to stop dangerous hazing practices. In 2006, Florida A & M student Marcus Jones suffered permanent hearing loss after being hazed as a Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity pledge. Two of his fraternity brothers went to jail after fraternity members punched and whipped Jones and other pledges over a period of four nights.

     Forty-four states, including Florida, have passed anti-hazing legislation. In Florida, if hazing results in serious bodily injury or death, it's a third-degree felony. Under the law, hazing is defined as any action or situation that recklesly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student.

The Michael Davis Case

     Michael Davis, on February 14, 1994, died in the track and field complex at Southwest Missouri State University after being slapped, punched and body slammed by members of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. The autopsy revealed that Davis had suffered fractured ribs, a torn lung and liver, a lacerated kidney, and hemorraging up and down his spine. His heart was also bruised and bleeding.

     The university banned the fraternity and several of its members were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and counts of hazing. Two of the defendants were sentenced to eighteen months in prison. The Davis case led to the passage of anti-hazing laws in several states.

The Matthew Carrington Case

     On February 2, 2005, 21-year-old Chico State University student Matthew Carrington died in a basement of fraternity house after members forced him to drink water and to calisthenics with fans blowing on him. This water intoxication hazing ritual caused Carrington's brain and heart to swell. His fraternity brothers waited more than an hour before calling 911.

     Four defendants in the Carrington case pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter while others pleaded to offenses such as misdemeanor hazing. In 2006, California legislators passed Matt's Law that upgraded anti-hazing laws from misdemeanors to felonies, and allowed prosecutors under these laws to go after nonstudents.

The Hazing Problem

     A national study in 2008 involving 53 colleges and universities and 11,000 undergraduates revealed that more than half of college kids who were members of clubs, sport teams and fraternities experienced some degree of hazing. Common forms of hazing included alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation, and sex acts. Because a lot of young people have a strong desire to belong to a group, they allow themselves to be mistreated this way. They accept hazing because they believe it's worth going through to get into the club. And there is also peer pressure and the power of tradition. What is more difficult to understand is why so many hazers--bullies-- have the sadistic urge to humiliate, intimidate and inflict pain on people who want to be one of them.

     When I was in college, fraternity related initiations and rituals took the form of paddling and running errands for upperclassmen, mild stuff compared to modern hazing. Unlke today, schools didn't regulate this form of activity, nor was hazing a criminal offense. Notwithstanding the efforts of parents, school administrators, and the criminal justice system, hazing remains a serious problem. And who would have guessed that it latest victim would be a 26-year-old drum major in a college band?    

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