Hazing, the weed in the Garden of Eden that suffocates us all
While colleges across the country are finding creative ways to celebrate National Hazing Prevention Week Sept. 18-22, I’ve managed considerable progress on my goal to create a database of every hazing incident reported in the media from colonial days to the present.
The present database has come a long way from the database I published in my 1990 book, “Broken Pledges,” using Lexis-Nexis data. Up to now, most major media outlets have cited my database of hazing deaths that showed the U.S. experienced at least one hazing death per year 1969 to 2017.
As of this column, that figure is out of date thanks to research performed for my Indiana University Press investigative book, “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives,” now at the printer for early 2018 publication, as well as research for yet another hazing book begun with a small seed- money grant generously provided by Franklin College.
The new database at http://www.hanknuwer.com now shows one death per year in U.S. colleges, secondary and elementary schools from 1961 to 2017. Think of 1961. JFK was inaugurated. Cuba’s Castro was cuddling with the Soviet Union. The Beatles were the mop-top rage of Liverpool.
Some years many deaths occurred, not just one. If Canada is included, the death figure is one per year from 1959 to 2017. Although there were no U.S. deaths recorded in 1958, there was an annual death from 1954 to 1957.
In addition, I counted a relatively small, though disturbing, number of hazing deaths over the years in Boy Scouts, Masonic organizations, the Knights of Columbus, and the U.S. Armed Forces. The story of how Benjamin Franklin in 1737 momentarily tarnished his reputation by failing to stop a dangerous hazing prank is the first incident in this database.
Behind every death is a family torn apart by the loss of a loved one who was strangled by alcohol, beaten to death, struck by a car while blindfolded, drowned, and so on. The first fraternity death, that of Mortimer Leggett, son of a famed Civil War general with the same name, occurred at spanking new Cornell University in 1873. Young Leggett felloff a cliff on a required midnight walkabout while wearing a blindfold in gorge country.
Then there is the proctor who got sick and tired of being hazed at Swarthmore College and grabbed a flashlight and rifle to slay one tormentor as he slept. The hazer escaped the electric chair with an insanity plea.
There was the recent death of Clemson pledge Tucker Hipps. Hipps died when he fell from a bridge at Lake Hartwell. His was the second Clemson fraternity death at that lake. No reporter, including me, reported that fact until a new keyword search came up with another tragedy at Clemson in 1961—the first year of what would become 56 consecutive years with a hazing death.
Stashed among thousands of news clippings about hazing are earnest appeals from educators, grieving parents, activists and earnest students to do away with this “weed in the garden of academe” as one pundit called it in an 1860 speech at Harvard.
But the problems of hazing in 1860 are the same now, but the perpetrators are a lot more careful to hide their tracks, to lie or to stonewall investigators, and to intimidate anyone threatening to come forward with the truth.
Dead ahead is a trial of more than a dozen Penn State Beta Theta Pi members. They urged pledge Tim Piazza to swallow enough booze to kill him in a fall, and they left him either unattended or abused him as he lay dying.
Just in the last week we’ve seen Louisiana State University student Max Gruver, a pledge for Phi Delta Theta, a staunch advocate for dry houses, die from an overdose. Local police are scrambling to find out what happened to him, but the members have clammed up tight as oysters and are talking only to defense lawyers.
The database shows three fraternity hazing deaths at LSU before Gruver.
I’ve met dozens of the hazed and hazers alike, the families of the dead, the dedicated Greek professionals, a lot of jaded alums, and activists from HazingPrevention.org, Stophazing,org, the AHA Movement and so on. Many parents who gave years of service to the cause have quit, so disillusioned by the continuing string of deaths that they no longer can even utter the word “hazing.”
Everything possible has been tried. Bystander training. Help Weeks instead of Hell Weeks. Associate memberships instead of pledges. Delayed rush. Yanking charters.
But still the deaths continue. I want to assure you there will be no more dangerous hazing when my friend John’s son goes to college in a year or, closer to home, my grandson in a couple more years.
But I can’t.
My list of deaths gets longer, longer and still longer.
Stopping hazing is easy, I tell students. “Just don’t do it.”
But too many don’t listen.
Hank Nuwer is a Franklin College journalism professor and the author of “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives,” “The Hazing Reader,” “Wrongs of Passage” and many other books.