Hazing News

What is the Life of a Fraternity Pledge Worth? Court Rules $1,000 Fine: Hank Nuwer

Opinion from the Orlando Sentinel by Hank Nuwer, Moderator of the Hazing Blog

One thousand dollars.

One thousand dollars per man was the penalty a Virginia court imposed on five Radford University students in the death Tau Kappa Epsilon pledge Samuel Mason from alcohol poisoning. He was 20.

Predictably, a sentence of two years for each of those men was suspended by that court.

Why predictably? Because in the 138 years that young men and women have been dying in fraternity and sorority initiations, not one person has ever served a sentence longer than two years for a hazing incident.

The first hazing death in America was of Cornell student Mortimer Leggett in 1873. In order to be initiated into Kappa Alpha Society, Leggett was made to walk along a railroad trestle blindfolded. He fell into a ravine and died. Since then, hazing deaths have rarely resulted in severe consequences for their perpetrators, and the severity of the practice has only worsened. From 1970 to 2012, at least 104 people have died as a result of hazing.

What hasn’t changed at all these last 42 years? In spite of death after death from hazing, the U.S. legal system and college administrations still haven’t come up with a way to deter hazing.

Colleges themselves have certainly been part of the problem since hazing was introduced at Harvard almost simultaneously with its founding.

If colleges really want to stop the hazing deaths related to alcohol, they must insist all fraternity houses be dry or shut down (with alcohol allowed on campus in regulated campus bars). Also, when a chapter is shut down for hazing, nationals must stop the bad business practice of granting the expelled members alumni status since the presence of bad-news alums at a number of hazing deaths has been documented.

In addition, colleges must provide potential new members a list of all fraternities caught hazing the previous three years — something the University of Texas and a handful of schools now do.

Finally, colleges need to advocate for a federal hazing law that primarily would require all criminal hazing statistics to be kept and published just as campus hate crimes, burglaries and sexual assaults now are routinely reported in compliance with the Clery Act.

This is why the arrests of multiple Florida A&M band members on felony charges in the alleged hazing death of 26-year-old band leader Robert Championwill be historically important if, upon conviction, they are sentenced to hard time of five or more years in prison. (There also were two misdemeanor arrests.)

Florida has the toughest penalty in the U.S. for hazing involving bodily harm. Under the Chad Meredith Act, named for aUniversity of Miami student who died after being hazed in 2001, the students could face the aforementioned five years in prison. Thus far, the law already has been invoked to result in two-year sentences for Florida A&M fraternity members convicted of nonlethal but violent hazing.

Legislators in every state need to urge passage of legislation that would make hazing at least punishable by the five-year felony terms that Florida now has in place. They need to look at the Florida law, which not only is tough but enforceable and proven constitutional.

Let the courts sentence those involved in hazing deaths to many years in prison and watch the practice die and pledges live.

However, having first written about hazing since the mid-1970s, and having watched case after case conclude with the lightest possible punishments, I expect the Florida A&M defendants — particularly first-time offenders — to accept plea bargains from the state of Florida and serve little or no jail time whatsoever.

Yet one can hope the prosecution will demand something more of each person that teaches more responsibility than a $1,000 fine.

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; 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 current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.