Robert Champion: Why is violent "hazing" acceptable to young people?

Numerous young people have been harmed or killed as a result of their desire to join an organization. They have to be leaders and know when to walk away. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2011 ― Florida governor Rick Scott says he would like to see the president of Florida A&M University step down after the much publicized and highly controversial hazing death of a drum major in the school’s marching band last month. On Friday, the Orange County medical examiner ruled the death of 26-year old Robert Champion, a memeber of the celebrated and award-winning Marching “100” band, a homicide by blunt force trauma.

Champion collapsed within an hour of a hazing incident following an invitational band competition. The ritual involved Champion walking a path between several band members who repeatedly hit the healthy 26-year old on his chest, arms, shoulders and back.

Sara Irrgang, M.D., wrote in the Associate Medical Examiner’s official findings: “It is our opinion that the death of Robert Champion, a 26-year-old male, is the result of hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, incurred by blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident.”

Against calls for the Pesident’s removal  by Champion’s family and others, the FAMU Board of Trustees said that president James Ammons would remain in his position to help in the investigation.

One thing that many of those watching this case have asked is, why would a 26-year-old man subject himself to being punched and kicked, all for the sake of joining a band fraternity? What is Champion’s culpability in his own death? 

These are legitimate questions that many may not want to hear asked, especially in the immediate aftermath of the tragic incident. As wounds start to heal and investigators, administration, and others start to dig deeper into this tragedy to find answers, they are worth addressing.

Pride. Camaraderie. Perseverance. The feeling that overcoming physical and mental challenges together with other pledges will lead to a stronger and fortified brotherhood are the answers I got from Tarek Pertew, a fraternity brother who pledged the University of Virginia’s chapter of the Theta Delta Chi fraternity when in college.

“What I think is good about [pledging] is that it puts people with similar mindsets and characteristics together and puts them through trials together.” Petrew said. “When you come out at the end, you become a stronger person and with a certain bond when with your brothers.”

To him, the benefits of undergoing the sometimes rigorous, physically and mentally draining process of pledging a fraternity are worth it. Incidents like the one at FAMU are isolated exceptions to the “larger global experience that people have,” he says.

In Pertew’s case, the Greek experience was not about outsiders doing whatever it took to join, but about people building shared backgrounds uniting together.

Not necessarily, says Dr. Barbra Greenberg ,who authored the book, Teenage as a Second Language: A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual.

She says young people who want to fit in may submit to hazing because “they are particularly vulnerable to group-think culture,” adding, “they desperately want to fit in and often think hazing is the price that they have to pay for being part of something special.”

Nicki Washington, PhD, Associate Professor at Howard University and herself a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, sees students undergoing the pledging process all the time in her role at the college. 

“There will always be individuals who join organizations for the wrong reasons, and use such practices to exert power and influence over others,” agreed Washington, who authored the books Prepped for Success: What Every Parent Should Know About the College Admissions Process, and Stay Prepped: How to Succeed in College (and Enjoy The Experience).

“There will also always be individuals who feel that they need to participate in such activities in order to become a member of these organizations.”

Washington says she has worked with straight-A students whose attentiveness and alertness in class would drop when undergoing the pledging process, and spoke of one particular student who lost his academic scholarship while pledging.

“For those students who do come to me expressing interest in joining an organization, I first inquire why they are doing it, do they understand the mission of the organization and are they interested in helping to uphold those standards or more so just [to] belong to something,” Washington said. “I also try to explain to students the importance of remembering why they are in college, which is ultimately to obtain a degree. As a result, any activities they participate in that are not a part of their course requirements should not adversely affect their academic performance in any way.”

“Finally, I also explain to students the importance of understanding when to draw the line and walk away. There are numerous young people who have been physically harmed or killed as a result of their desire to join an organization. They have to be leaders and know when they should walk away and, more importantly, report any behavior that is dangerous to themselves and others.”

Pertew, a proud alumnus of the Greek experience, fears the FAMU tragedy will tarnish the reputation of organizations traditionally accused of hazing.  He says the feeling of wanting to belong is not unique to Greek organizations and that he is wary that fraternities, sororities and other groups that pledge members are painted with a broad brush when stories like this one break.

“I think everyone wants to be part of something,” he said. “This is just one microcosm of the world as a whole. Things go wrong when an individual takes it upon themselves to abuse the system, it looks bad for the entire Greek institution.” Referring to fraternity and sorority organizational structures, he added, “When it is formal and structured typically things go okay and things go through smoothly.”

“There’s no question there were people who joined to feel cooler or because they wanted to sort of escape some of the experiences they had in high school, whether they were made fun of or considered a dork,” Patrew said. “In college, you are able to hit the reset button and be part of a community and be part of something new and get a new experience.”

Pertew doesn’t see an end to hazing anytime soon, even as the FAMU incident is causing many nationwide to question the practice and discuss how to end it.

“Unless there is a serious movement to end it, things will fall back to the way they were,” said Petrew.

Professor Washington also doubts that much will change ultimately.

“Realistically, seeing an end to this type of behavior on any college campus would mean permanently removing all organizations that participate in any form of hazing. I don’t know if universities and national organizations will take such a drastic step.”

She warns parents to be vigilant and keep on top of their children even after they enter college.

“Unfortunately, many students (and some parents) believe that because they are now in college, they are adults capable of making the best decisions. This is not always true, and parents be aware and prepared to step in as necessary.”

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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site while authoring her own influential blog which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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