Virginia State student deaths renew debate over hazing abuse

The apparent drowning deaths of two Virginia State University freshmen are refocusing attention on the role of college and university officials in curbing a culture of hazing and abuse on campus.

By , Staff writer

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    Former FAMU percussionist Caleb Jackson (l.) looks toward his family in court last week in Orlando, Fla. Mr. Jackson pleaded 'no contest' in the 2011 fatal hazing of drum major Robert Champion. Eleven other former Florida A&M band members are still facing manslaughter and felony hazing charges. Now, another hazing case at a university – this one in Virginia – is drawing attention.
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The apparent hazing death of two Virginia State University (VSU) students has renewed the debate over universities’ responsibility to combat hazing abuse.

In Virginia's Chesterfield County, police have charged four men, including two VSU students, with hazing after two students drowned in the Appomattox River on April 20 as part of an initiation rite for the social club Men of Honor, which is not a school-sanctioned group. One suspect is still at large.

Seven VSU students reportedly tried to use a “human chain” to cross the rushing rapids of the rain-swollen Appomattox River around midnight Sunday. A witness told local NBC affiliate WAVY that the water level rose to their chests, and the current swept away freshmen Marvell Edmondson and Jauwan Holmes. The evening was reportedly the culmination of a week-long pledging and hazing process for the group. Police recovered Mr. Edmondson's body on Monday and are still looking for Mr. Holmes.

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Historically black colleges and universities like VSU have struggled with a long tradition of hazing centered on physical abuse. But recent tragedies, including the November 2011 death of Robert Champion, a drum major in Florida A&M University’s celebrated marching band, have brought national attention to the issue, ratcheting up pressure for schools to take stronger action to discourage the practice.

“We’re going to see an increasing number of administrators losing jobs" over hazing issues, says Ricky Jones, professor of pan-African studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and author of the book “Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities.” "When these people start to lose their jobs, there’s going to be greater professional and institutional attention paid to" the problem.

At FAMU, Mr. Champion was beaten as part of a hazing ritual and died soon after. His death was ruled a homicide. In the wake of his death, the band’s director retired, university President James Ammons resigned, and the marching band was suspended indefinitely.

In a statement released Monday, VSU officials say they “are confident that no sanctioned VSU student organizations were involved in this tragic incident.” But university spokesman Thomas Reed says the school was aware of Men of Honor. It seems likely that this group was “mimicking black Greek-letter fraternities” in its hazing practices, Professor Jones says.

Universities, police, and prosecutors are making a greater effort to enforce anti-hazing laws, some observers say. Forty-four states, including Virginia, have such laws in place. In recent years, many colleges and universities have suspended fraternities caught up in hazing and alcohol abuse.

But Jones says not enough has been done to combat hazing at either predominantly white institutions or at historically black colleges and universities. “Institutions are doing a terrible job,” he says, even after the FAMU case. “It’s not slowing down.”

Since 1970, author and journalist Hank Nuwer has documented more than 100 hazing-related deaths at US colleges and universities, and Jones says 90 percent of hazing cases aren’t reported.

VSU has faced several hazing scandals during the past few years. Most recently, four VSU students, including the student government president, were arrested and charged earlier this month with hazing connected to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the nation's oldest black fraternity.

“Most hazing incidents in white fraternities tend to be centered around alcohol, whereas hazing in African-American organizations often involves a desire to inflict bodily harm,” Howard Bailey and Aaron Hughey of Western Kentucky University write in the newsmagazine "Diverse: Issues in Higher Eduction."

In part, that focus on physical tests in hazing rituals reflects "different concepts of manhood and masculinity," says Jones. Historically, “Black males have had access to very few zones of power other than their bodies, so you’ve seen this reliance over the years on physical dominance and prowess, and it’s bled into a lot of arenas,” including Greek life and athletics.

To move the needle on hazing, he says, colleges will have to institute true zero-tolerance policies or eradicate Greek life altogether, as some private colleges have done. “The organizations and individuals are not going to stop,” he says. Their hazing traditions are “too culturally embedded.”

Meanwhile, public tolerance of such threats to student safety is wearing thin. Jones sees the departures of Penn State President Graham Spanier and Mr. Ammons at FAMU as signs of what’s to come – “where you have something going on on your campus that threatens students’ safety and you don’t do everything in your power to stop it.”

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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