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Meredith A. Bennett-Smith

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An American Tradition: Change the College Culture of Hazing

Posted: 05/04/2012 9:27 am

Robert Champion was a phenomenal musician from Atlanta. George Desdunes was a former altar boy from New York City -- a good student who dreamed of becoming a doctor. Both young men were socially adept, bright and when they left home for college had no problem finding a friend group. Both young men also had their lives cut far too short by some of the very peers they thought were their friends -- two very different young men, united in death, by hazing.

On Wednesday, Florida officials charged 13 individuals in the hazing death of Champion, a drum major at Florida A&M University's legendary "Marching 100" band. The 26-year-old died last November following a brutal hazing ritual allegedly carried out by his band mates on a bus trip during which he was severely beaten. It is worth noting, too, that this is not the first incident of hazing involving the band. In fact, according to former band members, it is a longstanding and documented tradition among the members. A culture, said former band member Ivery Luckey, who won a $50,000 settlement from FAMU in 2004, after being paddled so severely he wound up in the hospital.

Champion's mother Pam, among others, had hoped for the more serious counts of manslaughter or second-degree murder, but such a large-scale and potentially unprecedented large-scale indictment nevertheless thrust the issue into the potentially sanitizing glare of the national spotlight.

During a news conference in Orlando, Orange-Osceola State Attorney Lawson Lamar was quoted as saying Champion's death was "nothing short of an American tragedy... An event that some early on mistakenly called a rite of passage. I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying. It's bullying with a tradition -- a tradition that we cannot bear in America."

Bullying with tradition. It's certainly an interesting parallel. In the wake of a series of high-profile incidents, bullying has made its way recently into a spotlight of its own -- a move that will hopefully contribute to a permanent change in the way school across the country handle the problem. Bullying can no longer be ignored in America. Bullies take note.

I, for one, hope that Robert Champion's death may become a similar watershed moment in the drive to eradicate hazing. When State Attorney Lamar stood in front of those television cameras Wednesday, he issued a strong statement: Hazing like this is unacceptable. It is not cute, it is not a rite of passage, it is not a bonding experience. It is a crime, and the overgrown bullies responsible will be held accountable for their crime.

This is, hopefully, a good first step. But one that comes too late, of course, for Robert Champion. Too late, too, for George Desdunes, who was found unresponsive after allegedly being made to drink copious amounts of liquor by younger "brothers" in his Cornell fraternity. It was supposed to be fun, they told police. Four students have since been charged in connection to his death, and are expected to go on trial May 21.

The tradition has a storied history going back to an incident in 1657 involving two Harvard upperclassmen. According to a 2008 University of Maine study, 55 percent of college students who join fraternities, sororities, sports teams or other student groups experience hazing. The overwhelming majority of these do not die. Since 1970, Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana and hazing expert, told the New York Times at least 104 people, however, have.

And remind me again, for what?

I've heard many an excuse for the practice. It builds character, friends have told me. Everyone goes through it. It creates unbreakable bonds and "memories" you all will laugh about for the rest of your life.

I don't think it's all that funny. In fact, the entire premise leaves me pretty sick.

I myself am a recent college graduate. (Full disclosure, I also attended Cornell, although I did not know Desdunes.) I have a healthy passel of student loans, a lovely degree in the Arts and Sciences and a legitimate love for my alma mater. During my time on the Hill, I joined many student organizations, became involved heavily in choir and a cappella, was a proud editor of the student paper and held down a good on-campus job. I made friends I know will stay with me the rest of my life. And I was never, ever hazed. So, you'll please forgive me if I don't believe lifetime friendships can only be forged in the aftermath of a charter bus beat down, or by being tied up, and having alcohol poured down your throat until you vomit. (When Desdunes stopped vomiting, the drinking reportedly continued.)

My parents were nervous to let me go away to school. Ithaca is nothing like my hometown of Sacramento, California. They worried, as all parents do, that I would make bad choices, or fall in with the "wrong crowd." (Think Grease's Pink Ladies.) In all honesty, they weren't wrong to be worried. I made my fair share of mistakes -- truth be told, I probably made a good deal more than my "fair share." I even got a new "risqué" piercing -- a move my mother told me quite seriously would make me unemployable.

In other words, I am not one to judge. I think cutting loose and making mistakes is an important life experience for the co-ed set. Cutting loose is going skinny dipping in the gorges,
drinking pitchers of beer for no reason on a Saturday afternoon, it's streaking across the quad or smuggling raw fish into a Cornell-Harvard ice hockey game. (Yes, that is a thing. Yes, Harvard sucks.) Cutting loose is not hazing."

The arrests this week in Florida may help bring closure to Robert's family, still looking for answers. Was he targeted for angling for a top spot in the squad? Was he singled out because he was gay?

But it is a far deeper change , one that must penetrate to the very heart of the American university culture, that is needed if we expect these types of incidents to stop for good.

Parents who were hazed once upon a time, I understand that time may temper your memories with the golden tinge of nostalgia. Control the urge to reminisce. Stopping the cycle means telling your sons and daughters that coercion and abuse are not the building blocks of true friendship, that joining a sorority or a lacrosse team or the french horn section is not an excuse to turn off one's innate human instincts of compassion and empathy.

Peer pressure is a strong influencing force in college. I'm sorry to say it doesn't just magically evaporate after the terrors of middle school. No one wants to be "that guy" who blows the whistle, who tells a teacher, who tattles.

But when Robert Champion was having the life pummeled out of him in a school parking lot on what was essentially a field trip, I'm guessing he wasn't very concerned about snitches, or forging bonds or school tradition. Fighting for your life has that effect on you. No more hazing deaths. The culture of hazing can, and must, stop now.

 

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