By Hank Nuwer
In the 40 years since publishing my first research on hazing in collegiate groups, I’ve often been reminded of the adage that every good thing is accompanied by trouble.
Hank Nuwer is a professor with Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism.
On the one hand, fraternities, bands and team sports provide a welcoming atmosphere for students who value the support and mentorship of older peers. They produce loyal, generous alumni.
Unfortunately, the bonding process sometimes exacts a price. Hazing has claimed the life of at least one initiate every year since 1969 – the vast majority in fraternities.
The most recent incident to hit national news was the death of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza, who died from internal trauma during a pledging event sponsored by the Beta Theta Pi chapter of Penn State.
Eighteen Beta Theta Pi brothers faced serious charges related to Piazza’s death, after allegedly forcing him to drink alcohol, waiting 12 hours before calling 911 and tampering with evidence. If convicted they could have been handed ten-year sentences by a court. But on September 1, a Pennsylvania magistrate inexplicably dropped all but lesser offenses for serving under-aged drinkers and hazing,
Prosecutors at the preliminary court hearing in Pennsylvania displayed video footage of senior chapter members prodding, photographing and ignoring the injured pledge. Timothy Piazza’s hazing ritual involved consuming large amounts of alcohol in a chapter pledging requirement called “the gauntlet.”
Soon after Piazza’s death, Penn State threw Beta Theta Pi off campus and boarded up its house. University President Eric J. Barron responded to the events in a recent article in USA Today, where he also described Penn State’s strict new rules for fraternities and sororities—most notably a transfer of governance from student to university.
The question remains: On campuses across the country, why does hazing happen in the first place? And why do incidents spiral into unintentional homicides?
Due to the “closed door” secrecy of modern initiations, legitimate hazing surveys by scholars have been few. The most commonly cited study was conducted by education researchers at the University of Maine in 2011. In a survey of 11,482 undergraduate students from 53 colleges and universities, the researchers found that 55 percent of all students involved in collegiate groups witnessed or experienced hazing.
Anthropologist Aldo Cimino proposes an evolutionary theory for the act of hazing. He explains that veteran members of a group often wish to ensure that initiates don’t enter the organization with a free pass; the hazing rituals are a demonstration of worthiness through a series of challenges.
My own theory is that fraternities exhibit cult-like behavior, sometimes with one or more “pledge educators” who restrict movements, isolate pledges from the campus community or even forbid them to speak or shower. I coined the term “Greekthink that might explain why hazers exhibit negligent and dangerous behaviors, act as if members and pledges were invincible, value group practices above individual human rights and deny when abuse occurs.
And in most cases, the hazing is a never-ending cycle of reciprocity; what was done to them, they now do unto others.
Indeed, though most hazing involves alcohol consumption, requirements often include more direct physical harm. Collegians have died from accidents during drop-offs in remote locations, beatings, drownings and even gunshot wounds – all in alleged hazing incidents.
Often, defense lawyers try to convince the court that victims perform the tests willingly and, therefore, are as much participants as the hazers themselves. Piazza’s ordeal, uncharacteristically, was documented on video, showing that soon into the initiation, he seemed unfit to make willing choices.
In addition to the more than 200 collegiate club or team deaths reported in the U.S. since the first hazing death occurred at Cornell in 1873, hazing is associated with numerous claimed occurrences of post-traumatic stress, hospitalizations for injuries, paralysis and scarring.
Until the late 1980s, courts tended to regard even deaths as unfortunate accidents, resulting in little or no jail time for perpetrators.
In the last 30 years, the Penn State case being a throwback exception, laws against hazing in 44 states have ruled that deaths and injuries should be regarded as crimes – not accidents. A marching band hazing death at Florida A & M in 2011 resulted in a 77-month sentence for hazing and manslaughter for one participant (who, in 2017, is appealing the conviction).
On August 28, American University expelled 18 members of the underground fraternity chapter Epsilon Iota for various infractions, including hazing.
Although these expulsions are intended as a deterrent as well as punishment, serious hazing cases at the college level continue to plague universities.
Timothy Piazza’s parents acknowledged that Penn State’s reform efforts are “a good start,” but critics question if these initiatives – and those by other universities – will be enough.
Activists hope that proposed federal legislation may prove more effective. A bipartisan law introduced in June 2017 would require colleges to report all instances of criminal hazing and to provide all students with an educational program on hazing.
Other recommendations to curtail hazing include banning single-sex fraternities (a move now recommended by Harvard University), clear-cut and enforced university sanctions (including expulsions) and mandatory posting of hazing infractions online – a practice now employed by a handful of schools.
Activists for groups such as HazingPrevention.org, many of them fraternity members themselves, hope a paradigm shift can occur.
For now, the start of a new school year brings the start of pledging. 1968 was the last year without a hazing death in the United States. Will new restrictions on campuses be enough to protect all of our students? Or will 2019-2020 become the 50th year in a row that we must mourn?
A version of this article was originally published in The Conversation.
Hank Nuwer is a Franklin College journalism professor and the author of “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives,” “The Hazing Reader,” “Wrongs of Passage” and many other books.