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Utah update: Greek hazing, like all hazing in all groups, can turn toxic

Greek camaraderie can turn toxic
Rituals » Hazing and alcohol abuse persist at college fraternities and sororities.

By Brian Maffly

The Salt Lake Tribune

Salt Lake Tribune
Updated:01/12/2009 07:21:47 AM MST

The hazing of Michael Starks, allegedly at the hands of teen-aged Utah State University sorority women, bears little resemblance to the abuse James Frank Hopkins saw inflicted on cadets at Virginia Military Institute when he founded Sigma Nu fraternity in 1868.

In the 19th century, young officers tormented junior colleagues by hanging them upside down and swatting saber blades against the soles of their bare feet, and any number of other painful corporeal insults. America nearly lost one of its great military minds when, as a West Point cadet, Douglas MacArthur went into convulsions after such a hazing in 1898, according to journalism professor Hank Nuwer, the nation’s leading authority on hazing.

In the century since, college fraternities have become hotbeds of hazing, with deadly results, despite efforts by their national offices to rub out the practice. Five deaths since the beginning of the school year are attributed to fraternity initiations around the country. Nuwer says hazing has killed at least one college student a year since he began studying the cultural phenomenon in 1970.

Given Sigma Nu’s leadership, it is somewhat ironic that its USU chapter, along with top local officers, are charged with hazing in connection with Starks’ Nov. 21 alcohol-poisoning death.

“Sigma Nu is one of the white hats against hazing,” says Nuwer, the author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing and other books on the phenomenon. “It has to be crushing to that organization.”

Civil War veterans established Sigma Nu as a safe haven from military hazing back when the practice was called “dibbling,” an old agricultural term that means planting seeds using a pointed implement to poke holes in the dirt.

Before the Starks tragedy, Cache County was the scene of Utah’s most notorious hazing case. In 1993, Sky View High School football players hog-tied back-up quarterback Brian Seamons and duct-taped his genitals before bringing in his prom date into the locker room to witness his humiliation. The incident resulted in a federal jury verdict against the school, but no criminal charges. Seamons, who later graduated from USU, was awarded $250,000 not for the hazing, but for his coach’s insistence that he apologize to his team for reporting it.

The role of ‘group think’ » Although there was little evidence Starks was forced to drink alcohol or endure humiliation that was remotely on par with Seamons’, experts say his case qualifies as a hazing because of the intense peer pressure involved in fraternity initiations.

“There’s no excuse for it. You won’t find a single [Greek] organization that won’t condemn this behavior. But at the local level, this group think takes over,” says Nuwer, who teaches journalism at … Franklin College and was a fraternity member in the 1960s. “Why? No. 1 is camaraderie. This desire for camaraderie is pursued at the risk of deception — of their nationals, their university and of blindness to bad consequences.”

Starks’ alleged hazers were young sorority women armed with paint brushes, smiles and a liter of vodka. According to criminal charges, Chi Omega women would capture Sigma Nu’s top pledges as a reward and take them to off-campus homes, where they would paint the men’s bodies and ply them with liquor. Some could interpret this as friendly horseplay, but Nuwer views the women’s behavior as pernicious.

“Their expectation is that he would get ill and puke his guts out. There’s no question that is demeaning. I would say this is more dangerous because on the surface it doesn’t look unpleasant or like anything but a great memory,” says Nuwer. “Attractive women are involved. Many guys pledge because belonging to a fraternity means access to attractive women. It’s like a carrot and stick with a deadly consequence.”

Common hazing practices include driving blind-folded pledges into the countryside at night for a long walk home, confining them in a room until they polish off a keg of beer, making them wear silly clothes during initiation week, and forcing them to take swigs from a community bottle of cheap bourbon when they are not performing well. Initiation rites often include harmless indignities, like dancing to “Livin’ La Vida Loca” outside the neighboring sorority, but it only takes one sadist in the group to turn the fun into a reckless game tantamount to Russian roulette, Nuwer says.

By the late 1970s, most states began passing criminal statutes against hazing. Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, New Mexico and Hawaii remain the only states without such laws. Utah’s statute allows for felony conviction if hazing results in serious bodily harm or a firearm is involved.

Downside of secrecy » While the secrecy surrounding many Greek events may promote brotherly bonding, it can also invite abuse and shielding perpetrators, experts say. Hazing rituals rarely come to light absent tragedies and hazed initiates have nothing but disincentives to expose abuse. Most of the time, they don’t even believe they were hazed and when they do, they rarely report it, according to a March 2008 study by scholars at the University of Maine titled “Hazing in View: College Students at Risk.”

Based on surveys of 11,482 undergraduates from 53 schools, and interviews with 300 students and campus officials, the study found hazing is widespread, even among groups outside the Greek and athletic communities.

Some 55 percent of college students participating in clubs and athletics have experienced hazing, according to the study. Alcohol abuse, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation and sex acts are common forms of hazing. Surveyed students reported that hazing incidents often occur in public, coaches and advisors are sometimes aware of it, and most hazed students perceive it in positive terms.

“Hazing is American as apple pie, but that pie has spoiled a long time ago,” comments Nuwer. “You cannot expect the newcomer to provide cheap entertainment to prove he belongs. Bonding can be achieved in many other positive ways.”

Michael Starks was the youngest in a Salt Lake City family of six children who range in age from 18 to 39, but are tightly bonded. Starks’ older siblings are college graduates, but none ever considered joining a Greek-letter society. The summer before leaving for college, Michael traveled to Australia with eldest brother George. They were at a rugby match when Michael surprised George by announcing his intention to join Sigma Nu.

“I said, ‘ We’re Starks. We don’t join frats. We’re not that kind of people,” says George, a Salt Lake City children’s book publisher. “He said, ‘I met the coolest guys.’ He got connected with them right off the bat. They were funny. He liked their diversity.”

In the Greek community, Michael was looking for a new “family” to help him adjust to life away from his real family, who looked after him and loved him without condition, says sister Megan, a Seattle lawyer.

“They problem is there is no adult who makes sure the ideals of the fraternities are executed,” says Megan, who believes freshmen should not even be permitted to “rush” fraternities and the university should take a stronger hand in regulating them. “They are sanctioned by the school, which facilitates students to join the fraternities.”

Last week, USU President Stan Albrecht announced he would convene a task force to determine whether more oversight of student organizations is warranted.

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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