Initiation rituals, humiliating and sometimes downright deadly acts required of individuals seeking to be accepted into a group, are known as “hazing.” But it’s perfectly clear that these stunts can cause short-term and life-long physical and emotional harm.
Athletic teams, high school social clubs, college sororities and fraternities . . . these are some of the groups known to subject wannabes or newbies to hazing, often concentrated in a short period of time called “hell week.” Sadly, the damage can last a lot longer than that.
Johnny Powell wanted a part in establishing a new brotherhood on the campus of Stevenson University, a fledgling chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi, by pledging through Coppin State University. His 2013 experience may have been excused as a bonding exercise, but it resulted in beatings and other abuse that landed him in the hospital for almost a week. Powell has filed a $4 million hazing lawsuit against the organization.
Hazing Isn’t Happenstance
Johnny Powell is not alone . . . either in his suffering at the hands of “brothers” (or “sisters”) or his decision to seek damages from the perpetrators through a hazing lawsuit, which in his case alleges false imprisonment, negligence and gross negligence.
The University of Maryland offers these statistics based on national studies:
- More than half of college students are involved in some form of campus hazing.
- In 95% of hazing cases, students who were aware they were hazed did not report it.
- In 25% of hazing cases, coaches or advisors who were aware of hazing incidents did not report it.
- For every 10 students being hazed, only one of them realizes that they have been hazed.
- In more than half of the hazing incidents, a member of the offending group posts pictures on a public web space.
- Students are more likely to be hazed if they knew an adult who was hazed.
- At present in the United States, 44 states (including Maryland) have anti-hazing laws.
- Since 1970, there has been at least one hazing-related death on a college campus each year.
- 82% percent of deaths from hazing involve alcohol.
Hazing, Another Word for Harming
In Powell’s case, according to the lawsuit, the defendants punched, hit, slapped, caned and paddled him; forced him to stand in a bucket of ice water while they poured salt in it; poured alcohol on him and forced him to drink it; poured garlic powder in his mouth; twisted a wine corkscrew into his hand; and forced him to do pushups with bottle caps under his hands. He was threatened that if he dropped out, the hazing would be ramped up for the other pledges.
Yes, this violates the provisions of Maryland’s anti-hazing law, Section 3-607, which states: “A person may not recklessly or intentionally do an act or create a situation that subjects a student to the risk of serious bodily injury for the purpose of an initiation into a student organization of a school, college, or university” and concludes, “The implied or express consent of a student to hazing is not a defense under this section.” And yes, it flies in the face of the defendants’ signed vow to Kappa Alpha Psi that they would do whatever was necessary to prevent hazing, according to Powell’s lawsuit.
Speaking Out Against Hazing
Perhaps one of the most disturbing statistics listed above is that 95% of hazing victims did not report the abuse. Here are the stories of a few who, like Powell, turned to the court system for justice.
Kevin Hayes, a Bowie State University student, filed a $3 million lawsuit against the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, alleging he was slapped, punched, hit, body slammed and paddled by masked men in 2013. His lawsuit seeks damages for battery, false imprisonment and gross negligence.
Daniel McElveen sued Francis Marion University in Florence, SC; Phi Beta Sigma fraternity; and an active alum who is also a high school teacher. The University and the fraternity settled out of court. A jury awarded McElveen $1.6 million for the abuse he endured at the alum/teacher’s home, beatings so severe he suffered acute renal failure, was hospitalized for eight days and dropped out of school.
Two former University of Nebraska-Lincoln fraternity pledges settled out of court in 2014 with the University, Sigma Chi fraternity, and other defendants. They alleged they were verbally assaulted, paddled, forced to drink alcoholic concoctions and perform humiliating acts with other fraternity pledges.
The family of Daniel Reardon settled out of court with Phi Sigma Kappa at the University of Maryland. Their son died in 2002 after being directed to drink large amounts of alcohol and was not given timely help after he passed out.
Ten years later, David Bodenberger lost his life in a similar fraternity hazing incident. He was pledging Pi Kappa Alpha at Northern Illinois University in 2012 and allegedly was forced to drink three to five glasses of vodka in an hour and a half. He died from cardiac arrhythmia and alcohol intoxication, his BAC five times higher than the legal limit. His parents have filed a wrongful death suit which is ongoing.
The Law Against Hazing
So, you might ask, if these actions are against the law, why aren’t criminal charges filed against the individual perpetrators? Sometimes they are.
Criminal charges were filed against 22 college students in David Bodenberger’s death. Five students faced felony charges with a possible prison sentence of one to three years, though probation is an option. The others were charged with misdemeanors carrying a penalty of up to 364 days in jail, with probation as an option. Their cases are ongoing.
Authorities in Ohio arrested 14 men on charges of hazing after a Gamma Phi Gamma initiation at Wilmington College caused a pledge to lose a testicle.
The penalty for violating Maryland’s anti-hazing law is jail for up to six months and a $500 fine – that’s about the same as some states and much less than others: Indiana and Michigan’s felony-level punishment carries a maximum $10,000 fine, plus prison time; a felony hazing conviction in Florida can land a defendant in prison for several years and facing a $5,000 fine; even a misdemeanor hazing charge in California can result in up to a year of imprisonment and a fine between $100 and $5,000, according to Huffington Post.
Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin is among those who think the state’s penalties for hazing need to be strengthened. He told NBC Washington that the present $500 fine is equivalent to “the cost of a few kegs over a long weekend for some of these frats … we want the fine to be $5,000.” In the spring of 2014, Raskin sponsored SB 806 to do just that. It passed the state Senate without a single dissenting vote but somehow got buried in the House of Delegates and never had so much as a public hearing. Raskin has vowed to try again.
Help is Available
StopHazing.Org theorizes that some organizations persist in hazing because they don’t know about other, more positive ways to build group unity. They suggest alternatives such as community service projects; peer mentoring; and a focus on history, tradition and goals. Organizations are encouraged to plan hazing prevention workshops to discuss alternative methods of achieving the goal of group identity.
The mission of HazingPrevention.Org is to empower people to put a stop to hazing. They offer resources from webinars to posters, anti-hazing campaign kits and bracelets (“These hands don’t haze”).
Most colleges and universities have adopted anti-hazing policies. Students — and their parents — are encouraged to learn about their institution’s policies and the procedure for reporting infractions.
A consortium of international sororities and fraternities has established a toll-free anti-hazing hotline that accepts anonymous calls 24 hours a day to report suspected hazing by athletic teams, bands, clubs or Greek organizations: 1-888-NOT-HAZE (1-888-668-4293).
Attorney Steven H. Heilser A former Golden Gloves boxer, I enjoy my battles in the courtroom these days as an attorney in Baltimore. I am married, have three children and love the Orioles, Ravens, Wizards, Capitals and all University of Maryland sports teams!