Hazing Expert: FSU Greek Ban Could Hurt Alumni Giving, Support

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Florida State University tops Florida's State University System in reported hazing allegations in the past year with 21 cases opened.(Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)Buy Photo

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More hazing allegations have been reported in the past year at Tallahassee's two public universities than at any other State University System schools.

Florida State University tops the list.

Since January 2015, 21 separate hazing cases — mostly within the school’s fraternities and sororities — have been investigated by the university and its police department. Florida A&M saw 12 reported cases in the last year.

The cases were unfounded, but a review of thousands of pages of documents related to the FSU reports shows despite being thoroughly investigated, few organizations face consequences. Even more rarely are criminal charges brought against the accused.

Officials at both universities say the increase in reporting on its campus is a good thing. It is a sign their initiatives are having an impact on students.

In recent  months, two FSU fraternities, Omega Psi Phi and Tau Kappa Epsilon, have been suspended as FSU officials proceed with student code of conduct reviews. The Omega Psi Phi case stemming from allegations of hazing is ongoing. No details have been released.

TKE was suspended over allegations that members made pledges steal traffic cones and scrub them clean for hours pants-less, dropped them out of town to find their way home without wallets or phones and made them act like slaves in black face during a drinking game.

FSU police and university officials have investigated 15 different organizations for allegations of hazing since January 2015. Some — Phi Sigma Kappa, Phi Kappa Tau, Chi Phi, Delta Tau Delta and Beta Theta Pi — have come under scrutiny twice; one is described as a pre-pledge organization.

A handful of them were placed on suspension by FSU while the investigations continued. One person was charged with providing alcohol to minors during a fraternity function in Heritage Grove.

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Police reports detail campus group antics

According to one police report, several people levied allegations that DTD pledges were forced to fist fight in the basement of the fraternity house. Another expounded on a weekend getaway fraternity brothers promised to make miserable if pledges continued to show their excitement. They were asked to bring a list of random items beyond what was necessary for a camping trip.

Typically, reports detail what prospects undergo to gain membership in campus organizations. One Phi Kappa Tau pledge used the word "hazing" to describe to his dorm's resident advisor why he was fatigued from not sleeping. He said during his pledging activities he was kept at the fraternity house throughout the night and locked in an un-air-conditioned room in strenuous positions.

Why did he go along with it?

"Because it will be worth it when he becomes a brother," the report recounted him saying.

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 (Photo: Florida State University Police Department)

Some pranks were of questionable taste.

Police reports detail an instance when two men described as football players reportedly asked Chi Omega sorority sisters if they, for a scavenger hunt, would pretend to choke them like Ted Bundy in front of the infamous campus house where the serial killer preyed on two coeds 38 years ago.

When someone — parents, pledges or people concerned about what was going in other organizations — believed things had been taken too far, they reported it to campus officials.

However, each of the closed hazing cases was stymied because police were unable to substantiate claims or because members and pledges, in some instances the reporting person, refused to cooperate with investigators or denied the allegations.

‘We can’t rest on our laurels’

FSU officials, like those at most schools, take hazing seriously. They try to act quickly when reports surface, suspending organizations and barring them from officially meeting while investigations are initiated.

But FSU's mission over the past several years has been to make reporting easier. Officials have tried to encourage students to come forward before hazing becomes more dangerous than just tasteless pranks. FSU’s online, anonymous reporting website, which is similar to those used at several state schools, has encouraged more students to come forward.

“We’ve made it easy for students and anyone to report a hazing incident, so that means our system is working to me,” FSU Vice President of Student Affairs Mary Coburn said of the 21 hazing cases opened in the past year. “To me, it’s a good sign. It means that we have educated students about what hazing is and they know that it’s something they should report when they observe it or experience it.”

Coburn has held her position for the past 14 years. During that time, even with increased reporting, tradition remains the biggest obstacle, she said. For generations, hazing has been an integral part of campus organization rituals. The legacy of hazing, passed down from parents to children, from alumni to pledges, is hard to break.

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 (Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)

“I think it’s a very dangerous mentality to rely on something just because it’s tradition even though it’s illegal or harmful to other people,” Coburn said. “That’s the one we’re trying to combat with our education of students and prospective members of organizations.”

Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and nationally known expert witness in hazing cases, said joining campus organizations, particularly within the Greek system, is an important legacy for some students.

That legacy is more pronounced in southern colleges, Lipkins said from New York, where she is based. That family heritage makes students feel pressured to participate in risky actions.

“In the South, the Greek system is embedded in the general culture and people are expected to get into a group their father, grandfather or grandmother was in. It’s like getting into Harvard for some of these groups,” Lipkins said. “It’s an attitude in the family that if ‘I went through it, you can go through it too. It’s not that bad.’”

With more than 12,000 new students enrolling during the 2014-15 school year and more than 600 student organizations to join, the challenge, as Coburn sees it, is to remain diligent in trying to change attitudes about hazing.

“It’s continual,” she said. “We have a new group of students every year so we can’t rest on our laurels. Every year we have to re-educate over and over and over again.”

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‘There’s smoke and you’re trying to find the fire’

Campus police also are encouraged by the increase in reporting. On average, 16 cases are reported each year. The past 12 months represents a high point in reporting over the past few years.

In one case, the roommate of a Delta Zeta sorority sister was concerned when the girl was brought home drunk in September. The aspiring member told police she drank with sorority members who were measuring vodka with turkey basters before going to Pot Belly's on College Avenue to continue drinking. She said she did not feel forced to drink.

In another case, FSUPD officers were conducting a check of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house in Heritage Grove in November after an anonymous report. Through the fence, the officer observed about 30 people in a circle in the yard yelling "Eat it! Eat it!" His position was given away by an approaching car. The occupant went inside the fence and began talking to people before the gathering hurried inside the house.

Officers conducted a welfare check and noted there were no obvious signs of hazing. They observed vomit on the ground.

University officials find it reassuring they are hearing about hazing incidents before things get out of hand and students get hurt.

“If your intent is for people to report, then don’t be surprised if people report. That’s a good thing,” said FSUPD Maj. Jim Russell. “Without those means for people to come forward, especially with the dynamics that surround hazing, I think it would still be going on, but we wouldn’t know about it.

“The last way we want to know about it is having a Chad Meredith type of incident,” Russell added, referring to the University of Miami pledge who drowned during a fraternity hazing in 2001. The 2005 law passed in Florida, making hazing with an injury a felony, is named the Chad Meredith Act.

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 (Photo: Joe Rondone/Democrat)

But detectives often face tough challenges when they try to investigate a reported hazing. Throughout the reported cases at FSU are questionnaires filled with similar answers, sometimes from the very person who reported an organization, denying anything resembling hazing. The reports also catalog the actions of a fraternity's leaders when they know police are conducting an investigation.

During FSUPD's investigation of the TKE fraternity, the group's president contacted members advising them they did not have to speak with officers, police reports say. He also told them not to return investigators' phone calls or answer the phone. Pledges acknowledged they knew the answers to investigator's questions, but refused to give them.

The questionnaires accompanying nearly every police report are dotted with "no" answers to questions about hazing.

“We reach out and of course, nobody knows anything about anything. It’s a case of there’s smoke and you’re trying to find the fire but nobody is pointing out the fire to you," Russell said. "It does make it very difficult.”

Lipkins, the national expert, said such stonewalling stems from a cultivated “code of silence."

“The reason the ‘code of silence’ is so strong is that the intimidation is so vibrant that anyone who breaks (it) would be socially ousted," she said, "if not physically harmed."

Tough to prosecute

Police and university officials work side by side when reports surface. Reports go to the Dean of Student’s Office and police. The two entities decide how to proceed. Police pursue any criminal charges. Meanwhile, the university, which is required to respond to reports, determines if the student code of conduct has been violated.

Police often consult with the State Attorney’s Office of the 2nd Judicial Circuit if they find probable cause to make an arrest. Before they file formal charges, prosecutors must decide if it's a winnable case.

“You’re talking about young people often who are often first time out of the home, first time trying to strike out,” said Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell.

In terms of prosecution, reporting allegations is just the beginning. Those who report hazing may be reluctant to provide detailed information that could be vital in court.

“And they go through very well documented psychological stages if they care about the person who has hazed them,” Campbell said.

Then there are the daily consequences of reporting hazing. Those who come forward face social ostracism.

When contacted by the Tallahassee Democrat, the man who reported TKE's hazing from 2013 did not want to be interviewed about his experience. He only would say that, even after graduating, he just wanted to get on with his life.

“It’s a lot of peer pressure,” said Campbell, a member of FSU’s Kappa Alpha Order during his undergrad years. “And where do they go now? If the university takes it seriously and shuts it down, now your entire fraternity is gone. You’re no longer a part of that group and you’re that guy, you’re that girl that identified it.

“You don’t want us to be involved in your life. Everything, the reason you’re here, is going to get messed up if you become one of my files.”

Hazing a ‘head game’  

Police and prosecutors aren't the only ones troubled by the consequences of hazing. Parents also have grave concerns when they read headlines of brutal violence meted out by campus organizations to which their children aspire to join.

In an Oct. 23 anonymous report to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity's national office, a father detailed his son's accounts about pledging at FSU’s chapter.

Pledges were barred from walking on the grass at FSU and from the student union, the parent reported. They were paddled. They were required to shave their heads. Those allegations were determined to be unfounded when FSUPD investigators could not find evidence to support the claim.

But the father feared the incidents his son told him about could develop into more than fraternity hijinks.

“There have been many cases where hazing has ended fatally,” the parent wrote. He mentioned the 2011 death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion and Marcus Jones, another FAMU student, whose hazing, although not fatal, led to the first Florida students convicted under the state’s tougher 2005 hazing law.

“I don’t want those same cases to reoccur at Florida State," the father said. "I don’t want my son or the other young men to be a victim. I want my son and those young men to be able to join a fraternity and not have to be beaten or disrespected to join.”

Lipkins, who authored the 2006 book, “Preventing Hazing,” said in the 13 years she has studied the issue, students always describe it as a “head game.”

“The key element is surprise,” she said.

Throughout the process, she said, organization members create an authoritarian structure of servitude, degradation and humiliation that makes victims feel they have lost control. Students in several of the unfounded reports at FSU detail derogatory name calling, being forced to wear blackface, being forced to consume alcohol and standing in strenuous positions for extended periods of time.

One student, who was helping clean the Beta Theta Pi house following a party, said the verbal back and forth between him and a member of the fraternity, “did not seem like a joke,” the pledge wrote in an email to a senior member of the group.

“It really felt like he was trying to break me down mentally," he wrote, "and it really made me uncomfortable and scared me.”

The fraternity member at the center of that complaint was suspended from the chapter for a year after a “trial by chapter” majority vote by his brothers. He also was barred from living at the on-campus fraternity house during his undergraduate years at FSU.

Regardless of whether students are physically harmed, Lipkins said, they can come away with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression or in extreme cases, become suicidal.

Psychological humiliation can be just as dangerous as physical abuse, Coburn agreed.

“In some ways it can be very detrimental, especially if a student is fragile already,” she said. “Different students react to behaviors in different ways. I don’t want to see any of it.”

Changing traditions

Students at FSU are quick to embrace traditions but are not always so quick to change.

Clark Rahman, the 22-year-old president of FSU’s Interfraternity Council, said when he tried to change the practice of pledges moonlighting as sober drivers within his fraternity, members protested.

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While it wasn't hazing, he steered members toward a more positive bonding experience. Now, pledges come to the Heritage Grove fraternity house to interact during mandatory study time and consultations that in part resemble job interviews.

Campus-wide, organizations are required to become risk certified at the beginning of each semester. Students take an online anti-hazing pledge. There are numerous seminars and workshops designed to educate students. The advice of lawyers, police, IFC office officials and former convicted hazers are all part of shifting the age-old, but outdated, customs.

“Tradition is huge,” said Rahman, the pledge educator for his fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha. “That’s one of the largest emphases that we have here is to change the traditions because people like to push the envelope. And whatever was done to them they’re going to try to do a little bit more.”

The reported hazing incidents are not indicative of the entire student body and are not unique to Greek organizations. There are always outliers willing to flout the anti-hazing base that has been established on campus. Changes will not be immediate, Rahman said.

“We’re trying to motivate people to implement that change and take that step back and say ‘OK, what can I do to avoid this hazing tradition that we may have?’” he said. “That's an obstacle people have to be willing to overcome and it’s tough. Everything spawns from knowledge.”

Contact Karl Etters at ketters@tallahassee.com or @KarlEtters on Twitter.  

Hazing reports by state university since January 2015. Those not listed did not have any reports   

Florida State University- 21

Florida A&M University- 12

Florida International University- 6 

University of South Florida- 5

Florida Gulf Coast University- 4

University of West Florida- 1

FSU has taken many steps and implemented campus programs in an effort to prevent hazing. The programs touch incoming freshmen, established organizations and the cause and effects of hazing. The anti-hazing program includes:

Required seminars for every student who wants to join a group and ongoing training for an organization’s leaders and advisors.

Online hazing prevention training. In its first year, 1,100 FSU students completed the training.

Bi-annual Inter Fraternity Council risk management workshops for Greek chapter presidents, new member educators, risk managers and social chairs.

All presidents and officers of recognized student organizations must complete hazing prevention training and each group must have a “non-hazing statement” in their constitution

Hazing Prevention Week

A campus-wide focusing on awareness, research and feedback from the student body. Last year, a “hazing is…” marquee prompted students to fill in the blanks.

This summer, FSU will be sending faculty, staff and students to the Novak Institute for Hazing Prevention for anti-hazing prevention education.

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Source : http://www.tallahassee.com/story/news/2016/04/01/fsu-leads-sus-hazing-reports/82440388/

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