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Opinion: It is time for Hell Week at Bryn Mawr to Cease and Desist

Moderator:  The Swarthmore paper conducted a fine investigation into an outdated Bryn Mawr college custom called Hell Week.  It is a throwback to an era when first-year students, in the name of class bonding and “fun” and no little amount of domination, allowed upperclass students to prank and to order newbies about.  Some of the week’s activities such as “Punishments” harken back to once common kangaroo courts on campus where new students judged “guilty” by upperclassmen were made to perform stunts.  Read more here at the Swarthmore Phoenix: 

Excerpt: According to Joyce*, a member of the class of 2016 who serves on Bryn Mawr’s Self-Government Association, Hell Week is a sort of welcoming for first year students, where a first year, or “Hellee,” would be paired with a “Heller,” or “Hell mom,” who would come up with tasks for their Hellee to perform throughout the week. Joyce said that students were allowed nearly unrestricted access and freedom to pursue various all-campus and Heller-Hellee activities. but that the spaces on campus and the types of activities allowed to take place have been limited in recent years, and that there is fear that they will become even more restricted after the working group finishes its work.

“During my freshman year, one of my tasks was to rate the Haverford guys coming off of the Blue Bus,” Joyce said. The Blue Bus is another name for the Bi-College shuttle between Haverford and Bryn Mawr. Joyce described how she and other first-years would hold up signs reading “You’re cute” or other messages as the shuttle arrived at Bryn Mawr from Haverford.

Despite the Hellee-Heller relationship’s similarities to the sorority practice of matching new sisters (“Littles”) with older ones (“Bigs”), Bryn Mawr students insist that no hazing occurs as a part of Hell Week.

“Everything is optional. You consent to everything. We send a questionnaire beforehand that you fill out and your Hell Mom goes off of that,” Maria*, an anonymous member of the class of 2017 at Bryn Mawr and also a member of Bryn Mawr’s Self-Government Association, said.

“A lot of the tasks are OK’d through committees to make sure they don’t appear as hazing,” she explained, “really, there was nothing that could even be considered hazing.”

Despite the insistence of several Bryn Mawr students that Hell Week is consensual and thus does not resemble hazing, Hell Week activities have incited media coverage in the past. According to a post by Gawker, The Dean’s Office presented Radnor Hall, a residence hall, with a list of community violations that occurred during Hell Week 2013. The violations included “Requiring first-year students to swear allegiance to Radnor over a keg,” “Requiring first-year students to go outside for a ‘class photo’ but in reality dumping water on them,” and “Shouting at first-year students with and without [a] bullhorn.”

The Dean’s’ Office leveraged several sanctions against the student leadership in Radnor hall for these community violations. They relieved all Radnor customs people, the general term at Bryn Mawr for various student mentors, of their duties, forced the Radnor Dorm Presidents to resign, and required upperclass students in Radnor to write a letter of apology to Radnor first-years. The Dean’s’ Office then gave the Radnor community two options for further sanctions: the opportunity to either ban first years from living in Radnor in the 2013-2014 academic year, among other sanctions, or to prohibit current upperclass residents from participating in the planning of Hell Week traditions for the remainder of their time at Bryn Mawr. Gray confirmed that Radnor Hall was only populated with returning students in the 2013-2014 academic year, an indication that the residence hall chose to ban first-years from living in Radnor, one of the options given to them by the Dean’s Office as a possible sanction for the community violations during Hell Week the year prior.

According to Joyce and Maria, a complaint received from a transfer student who felt uncomfortable with some of the aspects of Hell Week last year prompted the college to begin a substantial review and restructuring of the tradition. No sources could confirm this information, and in an undated email to the student body sometime before the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year, President Kim Cassidy explained that the creation of a Hell Week working group was originally recommended by the Bryn Mawr Board of Trustees. In the email, President Cassidy shared a report written by the Hell Week working group and said she had accepted the report and its recommendations and also shared it with the Board. The Phoenix was not able to gain access to this report.

Bryn Mawr students were unwilling to disclose exactly what is being changed about Hell Week for 2016, because the working group’s discussions are still ongoing and are only open to members of the Bryn Mawr student body, faculty, and staff.

“The name is being changed to something unknown, we will be having a vote soon. There are meetings happening all this week, but… planning [for Hell Week] starts all in October,” Joyce said.

However, in an email sent out by Traditions Mistresses, an elected position on Bryn Mawr’s SGA that is tasked with planning and administering all Bryn Mawr-related traditions, Celeste Lesdema ’17 and Jasmine Rangel ’18 indicated that certain parts of Hell Week have already been changed at the outset of the 2015-2016 academic year.  In addition, the email states that “Trials”, “Punishments”, “Confinement,” and “Warm-ups” will no longer be occurring this year.

The email from the Traditions Mistresses also states that the parameters for the working group will be in keeping with Pennsylvania Laws regarding hazing on college campuses. Such laws define hazing as: “any action or situation which recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student or which willfully destroys or removes public or private property for the purpose of initiation or admission into or affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in, any organization operating under the sanction of or recognized as an organization by an institution of higher education.”

The email also includes a statement: “…there will be no mention of a duck pond run on Saturday morning.” This points to a discrepancy between the officially posted schedule on Bryn Mawr’s website and the actual series of events that occur during Hell Week. According to the Bryn Mawr website, there was a “Duck Pond Run” scheduled for 5:00 a.m. on Saturday, February 21, but sources told the Phoenix that this “Duck Pond Run” did not, and has never, actually taken place.

Furthermore, the email sent out also assures returning Bryn Mawr students that the Traditions Mistresses “…expect to keep the happy surprise on Friday evening.” There is no mention of a “happy surprise” anywhere on Bryn Mawr’s website, and all the sources the Phoenix contacted, including the Dean’s Office, President’s Office, and the Bryn Mawr Self-Government Association, did not mention anything regarding a “happy surprise” on Friday. However, according to a Bryn Mawr senior who prefers to remain anonymous and will be referred to as Susan*, the “happy surprise” is actually the “Secret of Bryn Mawr” to which all alumnae/i are sworn to keep.

“The real secret of Bryn Mawr, that they swear you to secrecy to keep for the rest of your life, is that Hell Week does not really exist. There is no Duck Pond run. None of the events after Friday night exist. The real tradition is one that only people who have gone through and survived Hell Week know, is Flower Day,” Susan said.

During the Friday of Hell Week, Susan explained, upperclass Bryn Mawr students typically wear flower-related clothes and tell each other “Happy Flower Day!” or “Happy Friday” as a secret indication of the day. Susan also could not deny that Bryn Mawr students also wear lizard-related items on Friday as a part of recognition that there is a secret mascot associated with Bryn Mawr College: the lizard. When presented with this information, Gray denied the claim that there is another mascot associated with Bryn Mawr.

“Flower day is the day you reveal the secret of Hell Week, and then, in your dorms, all of the upperclassmen are standing around you, shirtless, in their bras, and they encourage you if you are comfortable to take off your shirt. It’s about body positivity, but I didn’t take off my shirt,” Susan said. Gray was not able to confirm the existence of Flower Day as a tradition that occurs at Bryn Mawr or that Flower Day is the “special surprise” referred to in the email sent out by the Traditions Mistresses, but did not deny these claims either. Susan also explained that the upperclassmen in dorms at this time will show the first years “Lizards,” or strings of paper with messages on them that say things such as “Welcome to Bryn Mawr!” Afterwards, Susan said that the first-years receive cake and champagne to celebrate.

Susan also confirmed that Hell Week was undergoing significant changes this year and said that the tradition was being shortened to only three days, but she was unsure of the other outcomes of the working group because the discussion is ongoing. This shortening has not yet been confirmed or denied by any official Bryn Mawr staff.

Bryn Mawr is administering a survey to the student body to select a new name for Hell Week, and the email states that the name will be decided by October. Precisely what other practices and policies are being restructured remains to be seen while the Hell Week Working group continues its deliberations through October.

*Names have been changed at the request of the individuals for the sake of anonymity.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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