Hazing nightmares: Abuse pervasive at US colleges

Wheaton College in suburban Chicago

CHICAGO: From sex abuse to sleep deprivation to unexpected deaths of very young men and women: hazing has become shockingly common for university students across the United States. By the time 19-year-old Timothy Piazza died of a ruptured spleen and internal bleeding, he had been injured for nearly 12 hours, authorities say. Piazza had become so drunk during initiation rituals at a Penn State University fraternity, that he twice tumbled down stairs-with the violent impacts causing severe injuries.

The hazing death shocked America’s higher education system, and has spurred reform efforts to address a problem American universities have been slow to tackle, according to experts. His slow death in February was captured on hours of surveillance camera footage from inside the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. He writhed in pain and went in and out of consciousness, without anyone calling for help, prosecutors said.

A survey by researchers at the University of Maine found a pervasive problem, with 55 percent of students involved in college organizations saying they had experienced hazing practices such as “alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep-deprivation, and sex acts.” The beginning of the school year is a particularly dangerous time, especially as initiation activities “ratchet up right around the end of October,” said Hank Nuwer, author of a book on hazing published by Indiana University Press.

Initiation rituals can escalate to stomach-churning levels of abuse. One applicant to a Princeton University fraternity was made to drink a 20-ounce bottle of tobacco spit, was whipped at a strip club and required to swim naked in a frozen pond, according to the tell-all book “True Gentlemen.” Injuries and deaths are far too common. Maxwell Gruver, an 18-year-old Louisiana State University freshman, was another fatality this year. He died in mid-September-taken to a hospital directly from a campus fraternity with what US media reported was six times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood.

Part of culture

Experts say the challenge for college administrators is the deeply ingrained nature of hazing in college life, in which students may hear administrators say hazing is banned, but nevertheless continue the practice. “It’s difficult to stamp out,” said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. “It’s probably the more frustrating safety issues that I’ve encountered.”

Many university students are living away from home for the first time, and at 18 or so are keen to fit in in a social scene where (illegal) alcohol is the centerpiece of social ife. Colleges are increasingly realizing the stakes, because a single incident could potentially wipe out a big portion of a football team, for example. Wheaton College, a small Christian school outside of Chicago with an outsize football program, is now facing such a challenge.

Five players are accused of abusing and beating a fellow teammate, leaving the freshman seriously injured. Wheaton in September changed the players’ team status to “inactive,” after various criminal charges were filed by authorities. The college refused AFP’s request for comment, offering instead a statement which said in part that federal student privacy protections prevented the school from disclosing disciplinary measures.

Several Wheaton students-most of whom did not want to be quoted-said the school made its anti-hazing stance clear. But, recent graduate Jeremy Foster, 23, told AFP he had witnessed initiation rituals that skirted the line toward abuse. “I probably saw things that would be considered hazing,” Foster said.

‘Momentum’ for change

There may be signs of a cultural shift accelerated by the Penn State case. That university instituted new oversight over so-called “Greek” organizations-fraternities and sororities. Other colleges have also taken action. Wheaton said in its statement that it would undergo a “campus-wide review of the level of effectiveness of our anti-hazing policy.” Louisiana State University announced a similar review, and the governor ordered all state schools to look at their hazing policies, as well. “There has been a great deal more education around bullying, as well as sexual violence on campus,” said Elizabeth Allen, one of the University of Maine survey authors.

The Penn State case also prompted a new bill in the US Congress. The REACH Act would for the first time require colleges to count and publicly report hazing incidents. It would also set a universal definition for what constitutes as hazing. “There was definitely national attention to (Piazza’s) death, and certainly the subsequent incidents that have happened have kept that momentum going,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus.

Recent hazing prosecutions are also evidence of tightening state laws, said Lake. Ten former and current students at Louisiana State University were criminally charged with hazing Wednesday in Gruver’s death, with one of them also charged with negligent homicide. Fourteen members of the Penn State fraternity face criminal charges, but a judge in September tossed out the most serious counts.

“I didn’t generally see a lot of prosecutors take as much interest in hazing crimes as I’m starting to see now,” Lake told AFP. But Nuwer, who has traced hazing deaths at American schools of higher education all the way back to 1838, is less optimistic. “Very few people go to jail,” Nuwer said. “The schools need to take more responsibility,” he added. “Don’t expect people to learn from their mistakes.” – AFP

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