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Colleges, Universities Initiating National Movement Against Hazing


Bryan Smith was recently appointed special assistant to the president for anti-hazing at FAMU.Bryan Smith was recently appointed special assistant to the president for anti-hazing at FAMU.

When two freshman students at Virginia State University lost their lives this summer in a river-crossing hazing initiation gone awry, it was a cruel reminder to educators, parents and students across the nation that hazing of any kind can quickly get out of control and yield unexpected and irreversible consequences.

It’s just two years shy of the tragic November 2011 death of Florida A & M University drum major Robert Champion. His death at the hands of fellow students engaged in a band unit hazing ritual brought heightened national attention to the decades-old practice that was in recent years increasingly getting out of hand.

Responding to the hazing “wake-up” call has proved to be more than a notion, say those engaged in challenging the practice.

“It’s the culture (at an institution) that has to change,” says Dr. Gina Lee-Olukoya, associate dean of students at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a founder of Hazing Prevention.Org. “A freshman signing a piece of paper (promising not to engage in hazing and to report it when he or she knows of it) doesn’t mean the culture is going to change.”

While the off-campus incident involving the Virginia State students and the band-in-uniform FAMU incident have drawn image-tarnishing attention to the two Historically Black Colleges, Lee and other anti-hazing advocates say hazing is widespread on campuses across the nation, large and small, public and private, regardless of racial or ethnic identity.

More important, as the practice gets more widespread attention, more is being learned about hazing and the roots of its motivation. In the process, the movement to stop hazing at high schools and on college campuses is gaining support.

“The FAMU case put everybody on notice,” says Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University. “It was just shocking nationwide.” Kimbrough has worked with hazing prevention programs and institutions on developing campus culture alternatives to the historical culture of hazing being the route to peer acceptance and respect.

Echoing others, Kimbrough says the FAMU incident exposed hazing as a widespread practice to college officials, debunking the common assumption that it was mostly confined to Greek letter organizations.

“The bands are the last frontier,” says Kimbrough, adding that institutions that claim to be serious about challenging hazing “are doing it much more campus wide.”

In North Carolina, for example, North Carolina Central University (NCCU) responded to the FAMU incident with an intense new anti-hazing effort that embraces the entire university community.

Just a couple weeks ago, NCCU hosted a series of events during National Hazing Prevention Week, including a march against hazing, an anti-hazing banner signing, a hazing and bullying forum and a “Speak Your Mind” candlelight vigil and poetry slam. The university said its hazing prevention week program, presented by the NCCU School of Law, was viewed statewide using “telepresence technology” linking four other HBCUs to the program.

FAMU, faced with intense criticism from the state’s political leaders and parents of its thousands of students in the weeks immediately following Champion’s death, has invested thousands of hours and several million dollars into the most ambitious and comprehensive effort to change a university’s culture.

It has reinvented the FAMU “Marching 100” marching band, making it smaller than the 400-plus roster of members it had at the time of Champion’s death. The new band, with a new director, is as focused on academic achievement as it is on performance, and is making sure each band member adheres to a shopping list of new regulations regarding practice time, study time, band participation and conduct.

FAMU has hired new staffers to enforce the new band rules as well as additional staff to ensure that new university-wide policies and practices are fully employed across the university so that all understand and honor its zero tolerance policy against hazing of any kind by any group of people associated with the university. To oversee its new efforts to address a long history of campus hazing incidents, FAMU has hired a special assistant to the president for anti-hazing.

“I see the education component as key,” says attorney Bryan Smith, the 40-year-old FAMU alum hired earlier this year for the special assistant’s post. “I think first and foremost, I can educate,” he says, illuminating on the point made by others that it will take more than just a policy to halt hazing. “That’s the challenge,” says Smith. “Changing the mentality.”

“You have to show the dangers and that it makes more sense to have alternative approaches,” Smith continues. Also important, he adds, is that FAMU and any institution that says it wants a culture change will have to pursue an agenda with longevity.

“People are looking to see are you really going to change,” says Smith. “They are looking for consistency” over time, adding that what people say five years or more from today will be the real measure of whether an institution has achieved a hazing culture change.

Michelle Terhune, coordinator of programs for Hazing Prevention.Org, says it’s an encouraging sign that more institutions appear to be taking the topic of hazing more seriously.

The shift in focus of the Zeta Tau Alpha Award to funding anti-hazing programs from cash awards honoring innovation in campus hazing prevention is a subtle, yet important decision by funders of that award.

Another good sign, says Terhune, is that more institutions are engaging in hazing culture change efforts year-round, not just in hazing prevention weeks.

Having ambitious programs doesn’t guarantee an institution will stop having hazing incidents, Terhune said. It does, however, enhance the likelihood of having far fewer incidents than if there were no efforts, she said.

“At the campus level, students are still grappling with the big ‘H’ and the little ‘H,’” says Dr. Lee-Olukoya. “They are trying to negotiate how bad is the hazing in order for them to negotiate their involvement in it,” she says, emphasizing that hazing is still hazing.

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