Perspectives: To End Hazing, Sending Promising Black Men to Jail Is Not The Answer

In Oliver Twist, one of Charles Dickens’ characters famously notes that, “If the law supposes that, the law is a ass — a idiot.”

You can easily lift that observation out of Dickens’ times, 19th-century England, and tack it onto a Florida judge’s 2007 decision to sentence two Florida A&M University students to multi-year prison terms for a fraternity hazing gone awry.

Briefly, Kappa Alpha Psi brothers Michael Morton and Jason Harris were involved in the 2005 caning of pledge Marcus Jones, whose lacerated buttocks required medical treatment and 25 stitches.

It’s asinine that Morton and Harris — one close to earning a pharmacy degree, the other weeks from an engineering degree — received two-year sentences in an incident where no one was killed or grievously injured.

Is it idiotic that Leon County Circuit Judge Kathleen Dekker made examples of the young men, as the first sentenced under a new Florida law making hazing a felony if it leads to bodily harm? Without question.

Florida is replete with instances where unduly harsh sentences have been meted out to Black males, be it in terms of disproportionate death row representation, or being strung from cypress trees under mob rule. The Sunshine State’s correctional system needs two more Black inmates — especially highly educated ones on a path to becoming productive citizens — like I need an additional orifice.

So many things are wrong with this case. Let’s start with Dekker, a jurist so drunk with power that after sentencing Morton and Harris, she ordered their attorney handcuffed on a contempt of court charge. She further commanded Morton and Harris not to speak with each other, or other Kappas, for three years after their release from prison, demonstrating a blithe ignorance of what’s contained in the First Amendment.

Sentencing guidelines in Florida’s new anti-hazing law called for one to five years. Dekker admitted that one-year sentences would have been sufficient punishment, but cavalierly added another 12 months as a “deterrent.” 

Florida A&M officials should be the ones working to deter hazing. Six years ago, a former member of FAMU’s renowned marching band won a $1.8-million verdict in a hazing incident against five band members. At that point, FAMU should have come down with student hazing guidelines so clear-cut that if a student even dreamed about subjecting someone to hazing, he or she would have been expelled. Instead, four short years later FAMU found itself back on the hazing hot seat, reaping all the negative publicity and financial exposure that comes with that.

Squatting in the on deck circle are the Black Greeks. Step right up, fellas, because I’ve got a metaphorical caning for you. In the interest of full disclosure, I pledged None Phi None in college. That’s largely because I would have punched the first ‘big brother’ looking to deliver blunt force trauma with a paddle, cane or two-by-four. 

Where does it say that withstanding needlessly inflicted pain makes you more of a man? I sailed through Army basic training, which also doesn’t make you a man, without a single drill sergeant laying a hand on me. Instead of teeing off on pledges into the wee hours of the morning, Omegas and Kappas, why not help these impressionable young people master algorithms? Or economics.

We move to hapless Marcus Jones, whose need to belong was so overwhelming that he allowed himself to be struck more then 90 times — in one night. As a result, Jones suffered a ruptured eardrum, lost half a pint of blood, and had a drainage tube inserted into his buttocks before his lacerations were closed with stitches. The operative word in Jones’ situation is ‘allowed,’ because he was never held down or otherwise constrained by Morton and Harris.

Jones was well aware that pledging Kappa wouldn’t consist of sitting around a campfire, toasting marshmallows and singing Kumbaya. Echoing the only words Dekker uttered at sentencing that made any sense, fraternity hazing is “barbaric.” Jones never did blow the whistle on his ‘brothers,’ by the way. His Kappa dad, Mark Jones, did after his wounded son quietly drove nearly 300 miles, from FAMU in Tallahassee to his home in Decatur, Ga.

The next actors in this sad charade are Morton and Harris, who are somewhere within the maw of the Florida correctional system as this is being written. They got shafted, but the law couldn’t have been an ass if they hadn’t initially acted like ones themselves. Harris’ crime? Telling Jones to keep a stiff upper lip while being caned, and reviving the pledge with water after he passed out, so he could be beaten some more.

Morton, arrested two weeks short of earning an engineering degree in 2005, was one of the Kappas who helped administer the beating. He and Harris, who was closing in on a pharmacy degree, were convicted of third-degree felony hazing. Never a smart activity to engage in, but one that apparently will cause Black college students in Florida to spend years rubbing shoulders with serial rapists and murderers.

t would be great if we could simply turn the page on this tawdry cautionary tale with the sentencing of Morton and Harris. Unfortunately, three other Kappas accused of beating Marcus Jones will be tried again on Mar. 12, after an earlier mistrial.

 In case you’re curious, Florida’s hazing felony law stems from the predominantly White University of Miami, where a fraternity pledge died after swimming drunk across a campus lake with two members of a frat he hoped to join.

No charges were ever filed against the two, so they never spent a minute in jail. Much less two years.   

— Blair S. Walker is a frequent contributor to Diverse.

 

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