The Hazing "Blame" Game

While it may seem insensitive to "blame" hazing victims for their hazing experiences, the issue is not so much blame. It's a question of who are the various stakeholders who may play a vital role in ending, or at least seriously curtailing, hazing.
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After the death of Robert Champion last year, his parents decided to do what many parents would do. They sued who they thought was responsible. In this case, they sued Florida A&M University ("FAMU") for its failure to eradicate the hazing culture that had persisted at FAMU for years, likely decades -- the hazing culture that resulted in their son's death. In its response to the wrongful death lawsuit, through its attorney Rick Mitchell, FAMU responded with a 23-page motion to dismiss the lawsuit. It stated, "Respectfully, as a 26-year-old adult and leader in FAMU's band, Mr. Champion should have refused to participate in the planned hazing event and reported it to law enforcement or University administrators. Under these circumstances, Florida's taxpayers should not be held financially liable to Mr. Champion's Estate for the ultimate result of his own imprudent, avoidable and tragic decision and death". While the Champion family attorney Christopher Chestnut noted, "We cannot ignore the irony and audacity of an institution in blaming Robert for his death," Champion's parents say that FAMU is partly to blame for their son's death.

In just the past few weeks, representatives of aspiring members of two other black student groups have sued those organizations over hazing issues. Christopher Rudder, 24, is suing Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity for alleged psychological and physical hazing that he suffered in 2009 while a student at Virginia State University. He seeks $1.7 million. Bernadette Carter, mother of Victoria T'yna-Ann Carter, is suing Delta Sigma Theta Sorority for the death of her daughter. Victoria Carter allegedly was hazed as she sought sorority membership at Eastern Carolina University. Due to sleep deprivation, she was killed in a car accident in 2010, when she fell asleep at the wheel.

While these deaths and injuries, and those suffered by many others, are tragic and problematic, it is a legitimate question to ask how much "blame" the aspiring members share. In part, it is a legal question. On the criminal side, at least sixteen states have language eliminating consent defenses in their anti-hazing statutes. On the civil side, Alabama is one of the few, if not the only, state that employs the assumption of risk doctrine to completely bar recovery for hazing against fraternities and sororities. Other jurisdictions recognize contributory negligence, which bans all recovery to the plaintiff due to his own negligence. Most jurisdictions, however, adhere to the doctrine of comparative negligence -- reducing the amount of damages a plaintiff can recover in a negligence claim based on the plaintiff's percentage of fault toward the injury. As such, both civilly and criminally, courts at least can and do entertain the notion that hazing victims can play some role in their hazing experiences.

Indeed, there are powerful psychological forces that compel an individual to remain in a hazing situation once the hazing has begun. The phenomenon of escalation of commitment occurs when decision-makers commit additional resources to a failing course of action. An escalation of commitment situation is characterized by three essential features: costs of continuing the same course of action, opportunities for withdrawal, and uncertainty about the consequences of continuation and withdrawal. People have a need for affiliation and are also committed to organizations that they deem to have a great deal of prestige. And then there is psychologist, Stanley Milgrim's, work on obedience to authority. Even as there are these, and other, explanations for individuals' choices to remain in a hazing situation, not all such victims remain.

Even more, some hazing victims may be on due notice of the dangers of certain organizations. For example, my colleagues, Drs. Rashawn Ray, Shayne Jones, Matthew Hughey and I conducted an empirical study of black Greek-letter organization ("BGLO") members to see what they knew about the BGLO hazing experience and when they knew it. We asked study participants a series of questions to ascertain whether they knew prior to the process of joining that hazing could be part of the process. We also asked participants whether they thought the hazing would continue after the first encounter. Almost 85 percent of study respondents knew prior to joining that mental hazing was likely, and slightly more than 75 percent knew physical hazing was likely. After the initial incidents of hazing, very few thought that mental (23.3 percent) or physical (30.6 percent) hazing would discontinue. For a more nuanced look at the data, we examined the same questions using only those participants who joined a BGLO after 1990, once the major changes in the pledge process were instituted in order to curtail hazing. The results were largely the same. Most participants expected there to be mental (85.2 percent) or physical (77.4 percent) hazing involved as part of the initiation process. Once encountered, few expected the mental (21.5 percent) or physical (27.7 percent) hazing to end. These figures were far more pronounced for fraternity, than for sorority, members.

While it may seem insensitive to "blame" hazing victims for their hazing experiences, the issue is not so much blame. It's a question of who are the various stakeholders who may play a vital role in ending, or at least seriously curtailing, hazing. Some critics and commentators argue that hazing will end when hazers stop hazing. That argument is as true as it is naïve. It's like saying that auto theft will stop when thieves stop stealing without considering the role that not having an alarm, leaving doors unlocked, and leaving valuables on the front seat play in victimization. If people want to get serious about addressing hazing, they have to be serious about assigning blame responsibility to those who are in a position to bring about change. And, without question, all too often hazing victims have that responsibility.