Fraternity hazing is just college-level bullying

Crime, Education

Kids are bullied – in the neighborhood, at school, on social media. Anti-bullying efforts aim to keep our children from becoming victims of bullies as well as from becoming bullies themselves, but the problem doesn’t end when young people reach 18. Take college Greek life, for example, where bullying goes by another name: hazing.

When hazing is fatal

On February 4, 2017, Penn State sophomore Tim Piazza died from injuries he suffered while pledging the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. The 19-year-old sustained a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung, and irreparable brain injuries from falling down a set of stairs. Piazza was severely intoxicated (his blood alcohol content was nearly 0.40 percent – five times the legal limit for drivers in Pennsylvania) from the drinks he had consumed during the frat’s hazing ritual. Nearly 12 hours had passed between Piazza’s fatal fall and a fraternity member’s call to 9-1-1.

At the Louisiana State University, 10 Phi Delta Theta frat brothers face similar charges for the hazing-related death of 18-year-old pledge Maxwell Gruver. Gruver died on September 14, 2017, after being forced to drink a lethal amount of alcohol – his blood alcohol reading was 0.495 percent, which is equivalent to drinking 24 shots. Eight members of the fraternity and two former students were arrested on misdemeanor charges of hazing. Phi Delta Theta was kicked off campus, and LSU instituted a no-alcohol policy for fraternity and sorority parties – until January 2018.

Most people know hazing and bullying are wrong

In September 2017, NBC News and Survey Monkey polled 10,408 adults (ages 18 and over) from a national self-selected sample. The online poll posed questions about college hazing, and the topline results revealed that most Americans are generally opposed to hazing:

  • Eighty-six percent agreed that hazing is unacceptable because it can lead to dangerous behavior and injuries. By contrast, only 11 percent agreed that hazing is acceptable because it can foster pride and camaraderie.

  • Fifty-six percent agreed that hazing could be eliminated on college campuses. Conversely, 41 percent thought that hazing will always be present on college campuses.

  • Seventy-five percent agreed that something needs to be done about hazing among fraternities and sororities, while 22% felt that hazing is part of college of life.

A rite of passage?

The poll, however, showed ambivalence over the role of hazing in Greek life. While, as previously noted, 86 percent of respondents found hazing unacceptable, only 66 percent disagreed with the statement that some degree of hazing has a place in fraternities and sororities as a rite of passage.

 “In contrast to extensive anti-bullying efforts on the high school level, college hazing in the minds of many of my students is considered a rite of passage,” says Steven Roy Goodman, educational consultant and admissions strategist with Top in Washington, DC. “They have come to expect it, and to a certain extent they tolerate it.”

Goodman says that until college hazing is no longer a rite of passage, especially at large campuses that find themselves hosting bigger and bigger parties every year, hazing deaths and injuries will likely continue.

But Timothy Jaconette, founder of the college and graduate school admissions consulting firm Advanced Admit, believes the culture can change. “Primary and secondary school bullying incidents can often stem from one actor or a loosely affiliated group of actors,” says Jaconette. “In colleges, the larger hazing issues often happen within the context of student groups. Universities can help mitigate these issues by offering better training and resources to the leaders of these groups.”

Hazing and the law

All but six U.S. states have passed anti-hazing laws, but they vary widely in how the crime is classified and how the statutes are enforced. Some states only require colleges to adopt an anti-hazing policy and then leave enforcement up to the institutions themselves. Other states treat hazing as a misdemeanor offense; while in some hazing can result in felony charges if the victim suffers serious bodily harm. And, of course, additional charges can be brought in cases of death or severe injury.

But while the laws are on the books, few are impacting the overall culture on campuses – or even in the courtroom. In the Piazza case, for example, a grand jury indicted 18 members of Beta Theta Pi on charges that ranged from tampering with evidence to involuntary manslaughter. But later a Pennsylvania judge threw out the most serious charges against the frat brothers.

While the judge did not explain his reasoning, court watchers note that over the past three semesters at Beta Theta Pi, 50 other pledges had been similarly hazed without suffering serious harm. This makes proving reckless endangerment – which suggests that the frat brothers placed Piazza in danger of death or serious bodily injury – difficult.

That difficulty, however, might be surmounted by the November 13 announcement that authorities had obtained a new videotape that showed the frat brothers plying Piazza with 18 drinks in less than 90 minutes. Based on this recent evidence, prosecutors have filed new charges against 17 frat brothers, five of whom are being accused of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.

Redefining the culture

The apparent willingness of students to accept some level of hazing might result from the perception that Greek membership confers advantages later in life. In fact, nearly half of the NBC/Survey Monkey respondents agreed (38 percent somewhat; 11 percent strongly) that involvement in a fraternity or sorority paves the way to move up the social and professional ladder.

What’s more, fraternities and sororities raise a lot of money – Penn State’s THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, is a Greek-sponsored dance marathon that has raised more than $146 million to fight pediatric cancer. Moreover, alumni who were members of a fraternity or sorority are known to give generously to their schools. It’s no wonder, then, that college and university websites promote Greek life.

“Universities can change their cultures to avoid more hazing incidents by admitting students who will be a positive voice to speak out against college campus hazing,” says Jaconette. “Work by campus administrators and faculty to address this issue is important, but the peer effect of students fighting hazing on campus could also play a huge role in solving these problems. The people you bring into a university have a large impact on the culture and life of a campus.”