Some Think It’s Worth The Risk, But Hazing Can Be Deadly

Since 1959, there has been at least one hazing death per year in U.S. colleges and secondary schools.

This fall has seen another tragic death due to hazing. Maxwell Gruver, an 18-year-old Phi Delta Theta pledge at Louisiana State University, died hours after participating in a mock quiz designed to get pledges disturbingly drunk – fast. Charges have been have beeen brought against 10 fraternity members, one a negligent homicide charge.

Gruver participated in the facetiously named “Bible Study” quiz, taking a snort of 190-proof alcohol each time he gave a wrong answer to questions about Phi Delta Theta’s history. It’s a drinking game associated with prior fraternity deaths at several universities.

It is true that fraternities, bands, and team sports provide a welcoming atmosphere for students who value the support and mentorship of older peers. They contribute to school spirit, provide student leaders, and produce loyal, generous alumni. However, as I’ve often seen in the 40 years since publishing my first research on hazing in collegiate groups, this bonding process can exact a price.

Data I’ve collected for my latest book, “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives,” demonstrate that since 1954, with the exclusion of the year 1958, there has been at least one hazing death per year in U.S. colleges and secondary schools. Two deaths occurred before 1930 in elementary schools. The vast majority, however, have been in fraternities.

So why does hazing happen in the first place? And how can these unintentional homicides be prevented?

Hazing in the past

Before Gruver’s death, the most recent incident to hit national news was the death of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza. Piazza died after a drunken fall from internal trauma during a pledging event sponsored by the Beta Theta Pi chapter of Penn State. Initially, 18 Beta Theta Pi brothers were charged for manslaugher, but charges against four were dropped by a judge in the case.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]There has been about one hazing death per year in U.S. colleges and secondary schools.[/quote]

Soon after Piazza’s death, Penn State threw Beta Theta Pi off campus and boarded up its building. Among the university’s new rules, listed by president Eric J. Barron in an article in USA Today, trained professionals with graduate degrees will monitor house activities, and pledging has been slashed to only six weeks. Penn State also transferred governance from students to university oversight.

Other recommendations to curtail hazing include banning single-sex fraternities, clear-cut and enforced university sanctions (including expulsions), and mandatory posting of hazing infractions online – a practice now employed by a handful of schools.

For its part, Louisiana State University is no stranger to the hard-drinking culture of fraternity hazers. In fact, it was just two decades ago that Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge Ben Wynne died from alcohol poisoning in an initiation similar to Gruver’s. Now LSU is figuring out how to respond to this latest tragedy. The fraternity itself is shut down, and the university’s president has convened a task force to study Greek life. Under the law in Louisiana, any student convicted of hazing must be expelled.

Why does hazing occur?

Due to the secrecy of modern initiations, few scholars have published legitimate hazing surveys. 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% of all students involved in collegiate groups witnessed or experienced hazing.

Moreover, the study indicated that only 5% of the hazings were reported to college or law enforcement authorities.

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.

A second popular theory comes from sociologist Stephen Sweet, who explains the symbolic significance of hazing. At this crucial time in a young man’s life, he writes, hazing rituals and totems – such as pledge pins, paddles, and even shared bottles of liquor – can all carry symbolic weight, linking pledges in their social interaction with each other.

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” – a play on Groupthink – to 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.

The wrong rites of passage

Indeed, though most hazing involves alcohol consumption, requirements often include more direct physical harm. College students have died from accidents during drop-offs in remote locations, beatings, drownings, and even gunshot wounds – all 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.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Only 5% of the hazings are reported to college or law enforcement authorities.[/quote]

Penn State student Piazza’s ordeal, uncharacteristically, was documented on video, showing that soon into the initiation, he seemed unable to make willing choices.

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, however, laws against hazing in 44 states have ruled that deaths and injuries should be regarded as crimes – not accidents.

A hazing death, for example, at Florida A&M in 2011 resulted in a 77-month sentence for hazing and manslaughter – although the conviction is under appeal in 2017. Louisiana is one of the states that has these laws on the books. It is, however, one of the weakest state hazing laws in the country, imposing in most instances a fine of only $10 to $100 and a month or less of jail time.

What can stop hazing?

Although these expulsions and convictions are intended as a deterrent as well as punishment, serious hazing cases such as Gruver’s death continue to plague universities.

Florida A&M marching band. Image by Kevin Coles/Flickr.

Penn State is not the only one to introduce new initiatives. Harvard, for instance, is a considering a ban on all fraternities. But many activists, including parents of Rider University’s Gary DeVercelly Jr., who died in 2007, are now looking to federal law to make a difference.

In June 2017, a bipartisan law was introduced to the House that requires colleges to report all instances of criminal hazing and provide all students with an educational program on hazing.

Penn State is all for it. Its president has publicly stated the university’s support for both the federal legislation and stricter state legislation.

What’s next?

Following Gruver’s death, LSU president F. King Alexander said:

“Maxwell Gruver’s family will mourn his loss for the rest of their lives, and several other students are now facing serious consequences – all due to a series of poor decisions.”

And, he continued, underscoring the “devastating” consequences of hazing: “We will … re-evaluate the policies and procedures that educate and govern our Greek community.”

Grief-stricken parents, like the Gruvers and the Piazzas, are not the only ones to hope that their family tragedies may serve as clarion calls for change.

In fact, I believe it is possible to bring change. Before the late 1920s, deaths due to hazings of college freshmen by sophomores surpassed deaths by fraternity hazing. A nationwide movement by students resulted in a near-end to these dangerous nonfraternity hazings. There has been only one single death since 1928.

Activists for groups such as, many of them fraternity members themselves, hope a similar paradigm shift can occur today.

And perhaps in 2018, we will be able to see the first year without a hazing death in the United States since 1961.

via Douglas Muth / Flickr

Sin City is doing something good for its less fortunate citizens as well as those who've broken the law this month. The city of Las Vegas, Nevada will drop any parking ticket fines for those who make a donation to a local food bank.

A parking ticket can cost up to $100 in Las Vegas but the whole thing can be forgiven by bringing in non-perishable food items of equal or greater value to the Parking Services Offices at 500 S. Main Street through December 16.

The program is designed to help the less fortunate during the holidays.

Keep Reading Show less

For more than 20 years. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) has served the citizens of Maine in the U.S. Senate. For most of that time, she has enjoyed a hard-fought reputation as a moderate Republican who methodically builds bridges and consensus in an era of political polarization. To millions of political observers, she exemplified the best of post-partisan leadership, finding a "third way" through the static of ideological tribalism.

However, all of that has changed since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Voters in Maine, particularly those who lean left, have run out of patience with Collins and her seeming refusal to stand up to Trump. That frustration peaked with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Keep Reading Show less
via / Flickr and Dimitri Rodriguez / Flickr

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign looks to be getting a huge big shot in the arm after it's faced some difficulties over the past few weeks.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice in the Democratic parties progressive, Democratic Socialist wing, is expected to endorse Sanders' campaign at the "Bernie's Back" rally in Queens, New York this Saturday.

Fellow member of "the Squad," Ilhan Omar, endorsed him on Wednesday.

Keep Reading Show less
Photo by HAL9001 on Unsplash

The U.K. is trying to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but aviation may become the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.K. by that same year. A new study commissioned by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and conducted at the Imperial College London says that in order for the U.K. to reach its target, aviation can only see a 25% increase, and they've got a very specific recommendation on how to fix it: Curb frequent flyer programs.

Currently, air travel accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, however that number is projected to increase for several reasons. There's a growing demand for air travel, yet it's harder to decarbonize aviation. Electric cars are becoming more common. Electric planes, not so much. If things keep on going the way they are, flights in the U.K. should increase by 50%.

Nearly every airline in the world has a frequent flyer program. The programs offer perks, including free flights, if customers get a certain amount of points. According to the study, 70% of all flights from the U.K. are taken by 15% of the population, with many people taking additional (and arguably unnecessary) flights to "maintain their privileged traveler status."

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet