Stop Hazing Now: Desire to fit in can prove life threatening
In the spring of 1966, Buddy Wagner was a freshman at Mississippi College who wanted to join a popular athletic organization. So he humbled himself to the upperclassmen.
"We had to do all kinds of silly things," Wagner said. Some included walking past a line of students who slapped them with belts, running a quarter of a mile around a track while chewing a laxative, and being covered in molasses, flour and paint.
"I was insecure and wanted to fit in with the athletes on campus because they were the 'in' group," he said. "The next year, I was involved in hazing. After my sophomore year, I decided I'm not going to do this anymore because it's not right. I thought it was ridiculous."
That was 1966. Violate Mississippi's anti-hazing law today, and you could get a maximum misdemeanor sentence of six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. But despite anti-hazing regulations, it still sometimes happens.
Last week, the University of Southern Mississippi revoked Kappa Sigma Fraternity's charter and closed the fraternity house after two students were hospitalized with alcohol poisoning following a hazing incident. The incident is still under investigation by school officials and investigators, and one of the students remains at Forrest General Hospital.
National Hazing Prevention Week is Sept. 22-26, and Wagner, who is now director of counseling and testing at Mississippi College, views hazing differently than he once did.
"The higher a student's self-esteem is, the less they have a need to fit in," he said. "They should surround themselves with individuals who are going to accept them as they are and not demand that they go through these rituals or dangerous activities. "
"What you kind of get into is a mob mentality, and if everyone else is doing it, that makes it much more difficult for a student to stand up and say, 'No. I'm not going to do that.' They should have some cohorts who will take the same stand that they need to take."
It doesn't just happen at colleges. Stophazing.org reports that hazing has been frequently documented in the military, athletic teams, marching bands, religious cults and high schools. The site defines hazing as a premediated act of power, control and victimization that's sometimes abusive, degrading and life-threatening.
Dave Westol, a Stophazing.org affiliate and former Michigan attorney, has presented his program "Hazing on Trial" at more than 1,700 high schools and colleges, including the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University.
"Hazing is normally perpetuated by a small group of individuals," he said. "They are loud and profane and are usually the worst members of the chapter. Those committed to hazing are bullies, and bullies are cowards."
Westol said hazing is becoming more prevalent in high schools, and while most colleges have anti-hazing policies that educate students, it still sometimes happens. "This is wrong," he said. "Rather than bringing people together, it tears them apart, and you end up with a fractured sisterhood and brotherhood. What's sad is Greek organizations are founded on values and ethics. If you really care about your little brothers and sisters, you need to stand up to the bullies."
John A. Williams was a victim of hazing in the 1970s while enrolled as an undergraduate at Southern University in Louisiana.
"I was pushed from a window," he said. "I kind of leaped, but I did it to escape the hazing taking place in the room."
Williams fell some 15 feet, had serious contusions to his spine, was hospitalized several days, and had to wear a brace.
"To this day, I still have problems with my lower back," he said. Today, Williams is a former professor at Pennsylvania's Cheyney University and founder of the Center for the Study of Pan-Hellenic Issues, an outgrowth of Williams' doctoral research on hazing and pledging in black fraternities and sororities. He conducts lectures and research on hazing and pledge-related issues, and he's served as a key witness in some hazing court cases.
"The last time I checked, there were over 45 states that had laws against hazing," said Williams, who is also a part of Stophazing.org. "Sometimes, it's treated as a misdemeanor, and in very few cases, it's treated as a felony. The effort has been to point out that this behavior is not desirable."
Williams said people ages 14-25 are more susceptible because they are the highest risk-takers, and technology may be fueling some hazing incidents.
"I think some of this is the result of the fact that we are in an instant information society where kids will do things and put it on MySpace," he said, "because, to them, it's a badge of manhood or womanhood."
He encourages them to refrain. "If someone holds your life in their balance as a condition of membership into their group, they are hazing you," he said, "and the first thing you should do, regardless of age, is tell a responsible adult what you are experiencing."
Benjamin Williams, assistant dean of students who oversees student organizations and Greek affairs at Ole Miss, said the university has a zero tolerance hazing policy, and so should students.
"Do not tolerate it," he said. "Never compromise your personal safety or health to join any group. Contact a university official when you see this happening."
Williams said it's also important to note that Greek organizations at Ole Miss and around the nation are doing great philanthropic work.
"During this past year, the community raised more than $500,000 for charitable organizations," he said. Some join sororities and fraternities for the right reasons, and some Greek organizations are committed to creating a positive environment for their members.
Emily Nations, an 18-year-old freshman at Mississippi State University studying biomedical engineering, recently pledged to Chi Omega Sorority.
"I can tell you for a fact that Mississippi State University does not, in any way, support hazing," said Nations, who decided to join the sorority so she could better her community. Chi Omega members support the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
"They also emphasize academics over social obligations," Nations said. "Chi Omega really stresses for us to come as we are and not try to change anything. If you are involved in something that is trying to change you into something you are not, you need to get out of that. We have over 300 student organizations that they can become involved in instead."
Clinton resident Harley McAlexander, president of the Student Government Association at MC, said today the college offers an environment that enables students to make friends and join social clubs without compromising their values or subjecting themselves to degradation.
"You shouldn't feel like you have to do anything or join something to make yourself a better person or become part of something," he said. "It's more about who you are as a person, and how you treat people on a day-to-day basis."
Derecos Jones, an 18-year-old freshman at Jackson State University, agrees. "Some people just want to fit in, but never go against your morals," she said.