Most parents of college students look forward to December, when their students come home for the holidays. Some are so excited to see their offspring home that they actually come to their colleges to pick them up. Others prepare special treats and goodies as an antidote to the oft complained about cafeteria food.
Robert and Pam Champion won't have that opportunity. Their son, Robert, died on November 19. His death has been ruled a homicide and he is allegedly the victim of hazing. Florida A&M University, one of our nation's most respected HBCUs, is in the headlines now, not because of its excellent academic programs, but because its celebrated marching band has apparently had a culture of hazing.
Robert and Pam Champion are to be commended for turning their pain into a force for change. In a recent media interview, they indicated that they have set up a Facebook page in honor of their son, who they describe as a "drum major for change" because they will use his story to help other victims of hazing. Mrs. Champion also indicated that she would set up an anti-hazing hot line so that young people can, anonymously, deal with issues of hazing. The younger Robert Champion has apparently not been the only victim of hazing in the FAMU Marching Band. In the past, one student has had her hip broken, and two have been hospitalized with kidney damage. And these are only the cases we know about.
The FAMU Marching Band isn't the only organization that hazes. Sororities and fraternities, whether part of the African American Divine Nine, or part of the larger Greek-letter organization atmosphere, seem to think hazing is part of the culture. Whether it is yelling and screaming at pledges, to the use of actual physical violence, hazing is prevalent. The National Study of Student Hazing, which got results from more than 11,000 students at 53 colleges indicated that "8 percent of women in Greek life have experienced hazing". This study didn't focus on HBCUs, but it would not be surprising to learn that our numbers mirror these. Two questions – why is membership in a group so important that you'd risk your life; and why must people verbally and physically abuse those who want to join their group.
Our young people are no better than what we show them they can be. I have heard sorority women make the distinction between "pledging hard" and "pledging soft", with the implication that the brutal former is better. Young men and some not so young men, sport brands, some of which have been infected, as symbols of their fraternity and their "manhood". Many of those branded were either willing or subject to coercion. When elders show their sons these brands, they may well co-sign the continuation of a brutal trend.
What is hazing about? It's bullying, it's coercion, and it's descent into groupthink in the worst way. I've got something you want, and I'm going to make you suffer to get it. In order to join a band you ought to be able to play music, not survive a beating. How does the beating make you a better band member? Actually, it allows some folks to play a game of false superiority to the detriment of others.
The bottom line, though, is that it has to stop. The college experience should not be a brutal experience, or an experience where coercion and intimidation are ingrained into the process of joining a group. To be sure, there are bonding opportunities in ritual – in learning songs, history, steps, or chants. And there may be penalties when band members or pledges don't toe the mark in learning things on time. But the penalties should not be physical abuse, and that abuse has become too acceptable.
What do we do about it? Some parents whose children have been hazed have brought criminal charges or civil lawsuits. Others have pushed for systemic change. Leaders in higher education must assert zero tolerance for hazing and enforce zero tolerance policies with appropriate actions. Four members of the FAMU band have been dismissed from school, but only after young Robert Champion's death. Had they been expelled sooner, might Champion still be among us?
Robert and Pam Champion are to be commended for turning their pain into change. But if hazing cannot be stopped, those organizations that allow it simply need to be disbanded.
Julianne Malveaux is President of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina .