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MICHEL MARTIN: And now, we turn to an issue also involving violence, but much closer to home. In Florida, a drum major with Florida A&M University’s marching band died recently, and police suspect hazing played a role. Funeral services for 26-year-old Robert Champion are scheduled for tomorrow. In the wake of Champion’s death, Florida A&M has called for an investigation, and canceled all upcoming band performances. The university has also fired its longtime band director, Julian White.
Now, many people are probably familiar with hazing allegations directed at fraternities and sports teams, but many were surprised to hear that hazing may play a part in other groups, like a marching band. So we wanted to know more about this, so we reached out to someone who has studied the topic of hazing extensively. Hank Nuwer is the author of several books on hazing. He’s also an associate professor of journalism at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. Thank you so much for joining us.
HANK NUWER: Thank you.
MICHEL MARTIN: How did you get interested in the whole subject of hazing?
HANK NUWER: Well, I was a graduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno, when a death occurred in 1975, in October. The death was of John Davies. And a lot of us simply walked by while that hazing was done. And then a second one, at a bar; and then in a third one – was done in the middle of nowhere; and John Davies died, and another pledge had brain damage. So I contacted Human Behavior magazine to write about the group dynamics – the group-think involved – and got the assignment.
MICHEL MARTIN: Now, is this something that is a particular feature of life on some campuses, more than others? For example, I think many incidents involving HBCUs – historically black colleges and universities – have gotten public attention. But does your reporting indicate that this is something that tends to happen on HBCUs more than others; or are all institutions – or are some institutions more likely to have this than others? Is there a through line?
HANK NUWER: Definitely, some are more likely to have it than others. If you have a culture of hazing, it usually goes back many, many years. And if you take an institution such as Florida A&M, it’s not only been a series of horrific hazing incidents that have cost a lot in terms of civil suits, but they’ve also had fraternities involved in hazing beatings. And in fact, Florida, which has about the toughest hazing law in the nation – with making it a third-degree mis – third-degree felony – has had people sentenced for two years in a Kappa Alpha Psi beating.
MICHEL MARTIN: What are we talking about? When we talk about hazing, what are we talking about? And why does it persist? You know, what’s it for? What’s it about?
HANK NUWER: Well, hazing has a lot of different nuances, as we can see from this case here. It’s usually thought of as anything silly, demeaning or dangerous, that’s used to welcome people into a group. But over time, we have seen it morph where accepted members of a band – or accepted members of a group who are seen as messing up, not measuring up, disrespecting the house, have been punished. And we’ve seen, at the high school level, serious hazing incidents including sexual assault, that have been done to cause someone to quit the team, not to bond with the team.
MICHEL MARTIN: Are there institutions – you just told us that there are just – institutions where this just seems to go on. But are there any commonalities within these institutions where this goes on? For example, I did mention the role of race, and you seem to be telling me that it isn’t race-specific; it’s not HBCUs versus others. But there seem to be certain institutions where this goes on. Why is that? Is there a – sort of a strong tradition, where…
HANK NUWER: Sure…
MICHEL MARTIN: …people feel that if you don’t measure up, you have to go – that kind of thing? What is it that seems to make certain institutions more vulnerable to this than others?
HANK NUWER: Unfortunately, hazing is an equal opportunity disgrace. I mean, we’ve seen problems with the Latino groups, Asian groups, African-American, historically white fraternities that have become integrated. And we’ve had deaths in all of them. What seems to be in common is, a group has a certain amount of status. And the members within that group that have status, are looking for power in some way, shape or form – be it an athletic team, band, or fraternity or sorority.
The power in a group-think type of mentality, where everybody is willing to do anything to keep the esprit de corps, leads to individuals acting as they would not act ordinarily because they’re in the group. That leads to people beating others, making them do forced drinking, taking them on scavenger hunts while they’re intoxicated, etc., that they normally wouldn’t do.
What it also results in, is dishonesty afterwards. That’s why it’s hard for police to investigate it. The groups close ranks, they circle the wagons, they come up with stories. And they have a sort of dysfunctional attitude that makes them step back from what they did, and not see it until years later.
MICHEL MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, I’m Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We’re talking about the tradition of hazing in institutions, in the wake of the death of a band member at Florida A&M University. Authorities allege that hazing is implicated in that death.
We’re speaking with Hank Nuwer. He’s an expert on this. He’s written several books about hazing, and he joins us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. So professor, is there any record of institutions successfully stopping this practice? What would…
HANK NUWER: Yes.
MICHEL MARTIN: What would stop it? What works?
HANK NUWER: Well, right now – and I’m an outgoing board member – there’s a group called HazingPrevention.org, that has really tried to unify schools nationally in terms of athletic hazing, or fraternity and sorority hazing. And one of the group members was present as an adviser, after a death at Plattsburgh State. And she very actively went after the sub rosa chapter where the death occurred – by water torture, incidentally. There were criminal charges placed. Unfortunately, they were not able to get an alum who had kept this group together. He managed to get off.
But they have been putting on – number one, hazing education programs. Number two, when they had a group, Sigma Tau Gamma, caught hazing for a minor way – making members swallow a nickel – they took immediate action. And that’s what you need – education, immediate action, and repeating it semester after semester because the group changes all the time.
MICHEL MARTIN: And finally, professor, you know, if you’re a parent, or a caregiver, about to send your child off to a school, and you get a hint of this kind of thing going on with some group that your child may want to join – I mean, some of these bands, some of these groups are legendary; they have traditions going back generations, and people very much want to be part of it. How would you prepare your child not to become a victim of something like this?
HANK NUWER: There is – I keep a hazing page. If you go to HankNuwer.com, you’ll see a list of incidents. If there is a culture of past lawsuits and stuff, be careful. Do your research, and definitely check in on your son or daughter every day.
MICHEL MARTIN: Hank Nuwer is the author of several books on hazing. He’s an associate professor of journalism at Franklin College, and he was kind enough to join us – as we said – from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. Professor Nuwer, thank you so much for speaking with us.
HANK NUWER: Thank you, Michel.
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