- Is a Greek Council A State Actor?
- Beware of Unconstitutional Social Media Policies
- Wise Use of Free Speech
- Federal Hazing Law Coming
- A Band Hazing May Forever Increase the Legal Consequences for Hazing Deaths
- New Law Partnership Focuses on Fraternities, Sororities and Student-Life Non-Profits
Newsletter > January 2012 > "A Band Hazing May Forever Increase the Legal Consequences for Hazing Deaths"
A Band Hazing May Forever Increase the Legal Consequences for Hazing Deaths
The beating death of Robert Champion in a band hazing at Florida A & M last November may change forever the consequences associated with a hazing death.
The FAMU band members accused of killing Champion with their fists as he ran through a gantlet in a parked bus may set a new bar for prison sentencing involving college students in a hazing.
Champion was the first band member ever to die in a hazing. It shocked the nation that someone died for the privilege of association with a high-status marching band at the largest public historically black university.
Like many a respected, award-winning fraternity chapter caught tolerating extreme physical hazing for years and years, the famed FAMU Marching 100 cloaked itself in lofty principles. Its web site boasts these primary values:
Highest Quality of CHARACTER”
“Achievement in ACADEMICS”
“Attainment in LEADERSHIP”
“Perfection in MUSICIANSHIP”
“Precision in MARCHING”
“Dedication to SERVICE”
Indeed, the Marching 100, except for lack of Greek letters associated with its name, in many respects theoretically provided its 420 undergraduate members with what to me are the best aspects of fraternity: high values, camaraderie, lifelong friendships, service to community, and an opportunity to excel individually and collectively.
It took far less than a minute to sully the reputation of a band that began in 1892.
Robert Champion’s death did not meet the standard definition of hazing: the “welcoming” of a newcomer in some silly, demeaning or dangerous way with the expectation that he will enjoy all the fruits of full membership once the ordeal is over.
No, the 26-year-old Champion was already a member of the prestigious FAMU band, but that day on the field in a football game against Bethune-Cookman University, he dropped a baton to the purported embarrassment of his fellows. They broadened the definition of hazing to include physical punishment for letting down the group. Another story circling in the press is that Champion was beaten as a precondition to join high-status members who took a certain bus called “Bus C” on game trips.
Punishing a veteran member for real or imagined transgressions has happened before in fraternities.
— Fred P. Bronner, 21, a Chi Chi Chi local fraternity brother at Pierce College, angered three fellow members who abandoned him in a forest without his eyeglasses, leading to a fatal fall over a 500-foot cliff.
— Two Alfred University Zeta Beta Taus beat up member Benjamin Klein for revealing their hazing secrets to another chapter. Klein committed suicide afterwards.
The Alfred fraternity members pleaded guilty to mere third-degree assault and second-degree hazing. The Chi Chi Chi brothers received probation and a ten-day community service stint with the U.S. Forest Service.
Unlike the Philippines, where fraternity members convicted of killing a newcomer can receive a life sentence, the United States traditionally has been forgiving of fraternity members and athletes who haze someone to death.
A Chi Tau local fraternity member at Chico State was given a one-year sentence for his felony conviction after the death of pledge Matthew Carrington, while three others received lesser sentences. That’s the longest sentence for a fraternity death. (The longest sentence for a fraternity beating without a death occurred at FAMU, as will be discussed in a moment).
One other recent fraternity hazing death at Radford University also ended in the courts with light sentences for nearly all defendants. In mid-December 2011, following the alcohol-related hazing death of Samuel Mason, six Tau Kappa Epsilon members received suspended sentences and a token fine (one has his case continuing for six months). A seventh, the big brother of Mason, received a two-month sentence. The eighth and final member now goes to trial.
The courts were far less lenient over occupational hazing in Texas. A judge gave two men 18- and 5-year sentences for an on-the-job hazing death in which new drilling rig worker Shawn Davis, 23, dangled while tied to a crane. One wonders what the ripple effect might have been if the hazers involved in deaths at the University of Texas or Texas A & M were given similar long sentences.
Here’s why members of the FAMU band could receive serious prison time if charged and convicted.
First, the Florida law signed in 2005 by then-Governor Jeb Bush makes conviction of a third-degree felony hazing possible in the event of a death. The police investigation as of this writing continues with no arrests as this goes to press. Individuals charged and convicted under the felony hazing law could receive a five-year sentence.
Rep. Adam Hasner (R.Delray), Sen. Walter Campbell (D-Ft. Lauderdale) and the parents of Chad Meredith (with the counsel of their attorney David W. Bianchi) led the lobbying for that 2005 law. Meredith, a pledge, drowned in a little over six-feet of water while University of Miami Kappa Sigma members watched and failed to call 911 in a timely manner. No criminal charges were filed, but the Meredith family was awarded millions in a civil suit.
Significantly, two Florida A & M Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity members in 2006 went on trial, becoming the first test case for the constitutionality of the Florida law. Their trial was nationally televised. The two were convicted and received two-year prison terms.
Florida Governor Rick Scott is as dedicated to keeping his state hazing-free as former Gov. Bush was. He unsuccessfully lobbied with A & M trustees to dismiss FAMU President James Ammons. Longtime, award-winning band director Julian White was fired and then rehired and put on paid leave.
If a five-year sentence is imposed, it is conceivable that legislators in other states could be persuaded to follow Florida’s example and institute tougher prison penalties for those convicted of causing hazing deaths. (There are 44 states with hazing laws at present). If tough sentencing becomes the new norm, the sentences for those convicted of hazing in the Mason death may be the last to get off that lightly.
Fraternity hazing deaths go back to 1873 at Cornell when the son of a onetime Civil War hero fell into a gulch while being led through the countryside by Kappa Alpha Society members. Significantly, Cornell again had a hazing death in February of 2011 when member George Desdunes, 19, died of alcohol poisoning during a hazing of a member that was conducted by Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledges. That death prompted the mother to file a $25 million suit.
Cornell was hardly alone in tragedy. Academic year 2008-2009 saw six young men lose their lives joining fraternities local and national. Five of the six deaths definitely can be attributed to hazing.
The Meredith family continues to speak out on hazing. William Meredith, Chad’s father, spoke at a law enforcement symposium in Indianapolis and also addressed students at Franklin College. W. (Jerry) Meredith, Chad’s brother and a volunteer for HazingPrevention.org,, does anti-hazing presentations for high school athletes.
Chad’s sister Kelly Meredith-Henson of Indianapolis takes a different approach. She wants the Greek system abolished.
“If it were up to me, the Greek system would be a thing of the past in our schools,” Meredith-Henson said. “If you could imagine the worst pain in the world, and unless you have experienced it you can’t, only then would you know what hazing has done to our family.”
Several international fraternities have taken the high road and demonstrated no-nonsense actions when a chapter is caught hazing, particularly if alcohol or physical violence occurs.
Executive Vice President Robert Biggs of Phi Delta Theta has become himself well known for speaking against hazing following the death of a Phi Delt pledge at Auburn University in 1993. In addition to dedicating much of the fraternity’s web site to hazing education, Biggs and others in Phi Delta Theta are looking into the pros and cons of supporting attempts to create a federal law that bans hazing. The main advocate for creation of a federal antihazing law is the campus watchdog Security on Campus.
Douglas Fierberg, a Washington attorney who has filed several high-profile lawsuits against national fraternities, says that the one action all international fraternities might take is to go back to the “Dry House” reform movement and do it by mandate, not by an undergraduate vote. Undergraduates need to understand that all Greek houses theoretically were substance-free for decades prior to the 1960s.
Fierberg likens the need for international fraternity executives to curtail alcohol abuse and hazing as campus safety and sound business issues where reforms are needed if Greek deaths and serious injuries are ever to end.
Clearly hazing needs to be on the agenda of every national fraternity and sorority’s board of directors in 2012. In 2009, the Delta Lambda chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu was fined $50,000 and convicted after the hazing death of Brett Griffin at the University of Delaware. That was a landmark case since it involved such a huge penalty against an unincorporated association.
Sororities and female fraternities such as Zeta Tau Alpha have committed thousands of dollars to anti-hazing education programs. Many other distinguished Greeks have taken volunteer and board positions for HazingPrevention.Org, an organization dedicated to empowering people to end hazing.
The latest from Florida A & M is that the family of Robert Champion plans to sue the school for what the family claims was doing too little too late to end “a culture of hazing.” The family of a female FAMU band member also has filed a lawsuit, claiming she suffered a broken bone during a hazing beating.
Thus, when it comes to hazing, crime not only doesn’t pay, it pays out big bucks.
Hank Nuwer’s last book is The Hazing Reader (Indiana University Press). He is an outgoing board member of HazingPrevention.org and serves as a volunteer adviser on hazing issues to Security on Campus. He is a member of a fraternity and founded the Hazing Collection at Buffalo State College, a clearinghouse of scholarly books and articles on hazing for free use by all researchers and students.