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For Perpetrators and Victims, Suppressing Temptation of College Hazing Rituals

September 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Florida A&M University suspended its entire marching band when a student drum major was severely beaten and died in a hazing ritual. Ray Suarez talks to psychologist Susan Lipkins and Cornell University's Travis Apgar about what university officials can do to stop hazing and keep students safe.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, when rites of passage rituals cross the line into potentially dangerous hazing.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Students, faculty and trustees at Florida A&M University, commonly known as FAMU, gathered yesterday for a town hall on hazing. It was their latest effort to deal with an issue that made headlines last November.

That’s when drum major Robert Champion died after he was severely beaten in a hazing ritual by members of the school’s popular marching band.

Eleven FAMU band members now face felony hazing charges. And, on Sunday, the school played its first football game in decades without the marching band. The band is suspended for a year.

Yesterday, the student body vice president said he hoped the town hall would mark a turning point.

MICHAEL JEFFERSON, Florida A&M University: We have had these before, but none like this. Today was different. Today was a conversation. Today was inclusion. Today, you saw students that were a part of it and that were excited about it, that were standing up saying, I commit to end hazing.

RAY SUAREZ: That may be easier said than done.

As the 1988 movie “School Daze” depicted, at many schools, hazing has been a rite of initiation in fraternities, sororities and other organizations for generations.

But the FAMU incident and others have brought out the dark side of hazing.

At Cornell University, sophomore George Desdunes died of alcohol poisoning during a fraternity initiation last year.

The university then withdrew recognition of its Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, banning it from campus.

And this week, The New York Times examined hazing at the State University of New York campus at Binghamton. Officials there shut down all fraternity and sorority pledging last spring after widespread complaints.

One student had written anonymously to the university: “I was hosed, water-boarded, force-fed disgusting mixtures of food, went through physical exercises until I passed out.”

That kind of publicity, and the spate of deadly incidents, have left university officials across the country pondering what to do to keep students safe.

For more on what draws people to hazing, both as victims and perpetrators, and what colleges are doing about it, I am joined by Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and author of “Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence.”

And Travis Apgar, associate dean of students for fraternity, sorority and independent living at Cornell University.

Dean Apgar there are millions of college students on thousands of campuses across America. Is this a big problem in American education or really an isolated incident?

TRAVIS APGAR, Cornell University: No, it’s certainly not an isolated incident. This is an issue that exists on virtually every campus in the country, if not beyond that.

We know that the national research tells us that about 55 percent of all students have experienced hazing as a result of being a part of some sort of organization or team. And so I would say that it’s far beyond an isolated incident.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Lipkins, there have been movements from administrators, from student leaders, from the organizations themselves to stop it. Yet, as you heard Dean Apgar, more than half of all collegians who join a group are hazed. What is going on there?

SUSAN LIPKINS, author, “Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers and Coaches Can Stop the Violence“: Yes.

Well, it’s pervasive, and it’s integrated into our culture and our society. There’s a huge code of silence so that people who are victimized don’t — do not come forward.

And a lot of kids feel like, you know, this is a rite of passage and that there is no big deal. They’re having a great time. Even if they’re not having a great time, they bond and they feel that it’s worth it, that this is something that proves that they’re worthy of being in a group.

RAY SUAREZ: What should we describe as being under that rubric of hazing, going to a campus party in a diaper? Being covered in chocolate sauce seems fairly benign, but then at the other end of the continuum, there is physical abuse that borders on the fatal.

SUSAN LIPKINS: Right.

Well, I define it as a process based on a tradition used by groups to maintain a hierarchy or to discipline.

And regardless of consent, any of the kinds of activities that are psychologically or physically harmful are hazing. As you said, it goes from mild to severe. But it can end up in death, as it did in this case.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Dean, does trying to stop this force it underground, out of sight, make it harder to police?

SUSAN LIPKINS: It is very difficult.

TRAVIS APGAR: I think it depends on how you approach the subject.

And if you are to really — to really effect change, which is the challenge that we have here, while keeping all that we know to be good about some of these processes or some of the organizations and memberships certainly, without — without throwing out kind of the baby with the bathwater, we need to do more than just police it, do more than just enforce it.

We know that is a key element to any strategy that will be effective.

But we certainly need to change the mind-set that our students have. And this is a real challenge for us to get them to think differently about hazing, so that they start to implement different initiatives, different kinds of traditions to replace what exists now.

RAY SUAREZ: But changing a culture, changing a mind-set is often a long process. These people are only in college for four years, ideally.

SUSAN LIPKINS: Right. I think that we really have to train the bystanders…

TRAVIS APGAR: There’s no question it is a long process.

RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, Dean. Finish your thought.

TRAVIS APGAR: And I would say that the idea that we are — that they are here for four years, maybe five, depending on what their major is, actually works to our benefit. We have turnover on a consistent basis.

And so working with students year in and year out as they come to our campus, helping them understand exactly what hazing is, and taking a certain stance against it, as people come and go, they actually will — hopefully we will see the culture change more readily because of that transition.

We absolutely have to deal with the fact that we know that about half of students, almost half of the students come to us from high school having experienced hazing, and that is a real challenge.

But every campus is a little bit different with a different culture. And so if that is true, then it is reasonable to believe that what we are doing on our campuses should be able to institute a certain mind-set around things like hazing and the way that the students see it as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Lipkins, wouldn’t some of the participants just saying no break the chain?

SUSAN LIPKINS: Well, we would like it to be that easy and to just say no. But, really, you need a group. You need more than one. You need at least two or more people to stand up and question the perpetrators or the leaders and say no in order to question their authority.

But we really have to train the bystanders, because they’re the largest group. And, therefore, if we empower them and teach them how to stand up and how to question that authority, then I think we can change the culture.

RAY SUAREZ: But how come — if this is voluntary association, people who want to be in the band, people who want to be in a secret society, how come the pressure hasn’t worked?

If it’s people who were hazed who are now doing the hazing, how come downward pressure just doesn’t make it stop?

SUSAN LIPKINS: Well, I believe that there’s a blueprint of hazing, where victims come in. Then they become bystanders and watch as others get hazed.

And, eventually they’re the perpetrators. They have the power. And they do unto others what was done to them.

They feel they have the right and the duty to repeat it. And they add their own mark. And so it gets a little larger, a little more alcohol, a little more paddling each year.

And so, after 10 years, it’s a lot more in it and there’s a big change.

And so they don’t think that they should stop, but they think that they have to continue it. I mean, alumni even come back add to that and want it to be continued to prove that they’re worthy of being in the group.

RAY SUAREZ: Dean, do you see that escalation over time? Has that been a problem on campuses?

TRAVIS APGAR: Yes, I would agree with that.

I think that to, Dr. Lipkins’ point, that there is certainly a great deal of, I guess, denial, that there’s this cognitive dissonance almost that exists, where a student who has existed — or experienced hazing or that sort of experience and allowed themselves to go through it, it’s very difficult for them I think to see it as something that is wrong or to admit that it’s wrong.

And, again, once they have experienced it, they believe that they have been brought into this organization in this way, that the tradition is so important, it really does become ingrained. And it is something that they feel pressure to repeat.

The reality is that there’s a lot of students who don’t necessarily agree with hazing and are kind of these willing bystanders, that they — or — excuse me — unwilling bystanders. You know, they don’t actually intervene, but they — if left to them to decide would not continue to use these kind of practices.

But for the same reasons that they allow themselves to be hazed, which is that they don’t want to be ostracized, they really want to belong to these organizations and teams, they allow themselves to participate, whether it be directly or indirectly, in the hazing practices moving forward.

And to answer your question directly, yes, there is an escalation of hazing when we see it happen, not only from person to person in terms of class years, but also something that starts as small — you had asked a question earlier about defining hazing.

And we can give you very technical definitions, but it exists on this very broad spectrum of the kinds of incidents, everything from what might be low risk in terms of a physical danger, but to a high risk of a physical danger.

You know, wearing a diaper to the cafeteria, low risk possibly, but maybe a very high risk in terms of the mental or emotional damage that it could cause. And so that’s a component that most people haven’t considered. They look at hazing and they think about the physical aspects and the damage that that can cause.

RAY SUAREZ: Dean Apgar, Dr. Lipkins, thank you both.