When hazing leads to death: one campus’ response – Southeast Missouri State University

All campus administrators face issues of hazing, some with more
urgency than others. Southeast Missouri State University faced a worse
crisis than most in 1994 when twenty-five-year old Michael Davis — a
journalism major — died after two weeks of hazing at the hands of his
Kappa Alpha Psi brothers.

At that time, a horrified campus held countless discussions about
what the college as a whole knew or should have known — and realized
it did not know nearly enough.

Today, Loren Rullman, director of the university center with
responsibility for Greek life, says confidently, “There is not hazing
that is taking place. I really believe that.

Rullman, who came to Southeast Missouri six months after Davis
died, has spent a great deal of time working with fraternities and
sororities, both Black and White, to get to the point where he can be
so confident.

Whether other campuses can duplicate the procedures that has made
him so confident is an open question, he says. The unfortunate death of
Michael Davis gave the entire campus “an incredible sensitivity” to the
issue of hazing.

“We have never forgotten that, but it isn’t something you can program,” he says.

Still, he says, other campuses can learn from the experience of Southeast Missouri.

“They need to took at what has happened here and learn something,” Rullman advises.

One of the ways Rullman has approached the issue is to emphasize
that hazing is not peculiar to Black fraternities and sororities,
despite the public attention focused on them.

In my view, hazing is a behavioral problem, not just a Greek
problem, and not just a Black Greek problem. Hazing can take place in a
variety of circumstances where there is group identity and entrance
into the group.”

For that reason, many of the responses of the university have been
general rather than specific to the fraternities and sororities.

The vice president for student affairs at Southeast Missouri, Dr.
SueAnn Strom, was one of the crisis managers at the time of Davis’s
death. She has since given talks to campus administrators at other
institutions about what steps have been taken at her campus.

The first step, of course, was reacting directly to the death —
providing buses for students and faculty to attend the funeral, and
arranging for counseling for students and faculty who knew Davis and
knew the thirteen young men in the Kappa Alpha Psi chapter charged with
hazing offenses — ranging from misdemeanors to manslaughter.

I knew Michael well. I had found him to be a very bright,
goal-oriented person. I knew a lot of the thirteen men and what their
life plans were,” says Strom, who adds that the incident had been a
terrible shock not just for her, but for the whole campus,

Then a few days after the death, the campus dismissed the Kappa
chapter and according to Rullman, “They will not be allowed back on

Shortly after that, Strom and the then-Greek life coordinator
conducted a campus-wide hazing survey to assess what members of the
campus knew and when. What they found, among other things, was that
people around Davis had noticed a change in his behavior over the two
weeks that he had been hazed which they had not recognized as danger
signs. But Strom also found deep layers of ignorance.

“I hadn’t even known the Kappa chapter had a line,” Strom says,
referring to the line of new pledges who are sometimes paddled or
otherwise hazed.

New Policies

Since Davis’s death, Southeast Missouri has taken several actions, including:

* Changing its rules regarding hazing. Although it had been
forbidden, it was in line with stale law which considered most hazing
activities a misdemeanor. Following Davis’s death, his family and the
local prosecutor worked with the state legislature to make some hazing
activities felonies. The university also tightened its rules regarding

* Each new pledge of any fraternity or sorority — known as Greek
organizations — sign a hazing card saying that they will report any
hazing activity.

* The university holds a retreat for all the presidents of
fraternities and sororities every year to discuss the nature of
leadership and the role the presidents must play in stopping hazing.

* The university also does extensive training with campus
administrators and resident advisers to keep alert for any signs of
hazing. The problem with that, Strom admits, is that out of the 8,200
students this fall, only 1,600 lived on campus. It is impossible, he
says, to keep tabs on what students are doing at all times. Davis, for
example, lived off campus.

* Strom and other officials made a video that included an interview
with one of the young men convicted in the death of Davis. Among other
things, he said he certainly hadn’t expected Davis to die. He himself
had undergone similar activities, he said. He also said he didn’t think
hazing would stop unless the national organizations developed a culture
that didn’t approve of it.

* The university consults with the national affiliate of a fraternity or sorority any time a new activity is proposed.

“Hypothetically,” says Rullman, “a fraternity might want to have a
party and require new initiates to do something different from everyone
else, We might call the headquarters and ask if it is in accord with
fraternity values.”

* Campus administrators, including Rullman, maintain personal
relationships with fraternity and sorority members. With the Black
fraternities and sororities, this is relatively simple because there
are so few members — only about twenty. Kappa had been the biggest
chapter on campus, but it is no longer there.

* The members of National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations (Black
fraternities and sororities) on campus have also taken a great deal of
responsibility for seeing that the incident is not repeated. For
example, they have established a Michael Davis Scholarship Fund. By
raising money for the fund and remembering the tragedy which befell
Michael Davis, they hope to keep alive the issue of hazing.

The Black Greeks have also taken the lead in organizing large
campus-wide events, such as bringing poet Nikki Giovanni to campus and
holding campus-wide homecoming celebrations featuring big-name
comedians. They are supported in these efforts by campus funds —
approximately a third of the student government activity budget.

“I see a lot of maturity and responsibility there,” Strom says about the Black Greek members.

* The school of journalism, where Davis was a student, has
established a major annual lecture in his name, which also keeps alive
the issue of hazing.

* The campus is now putting together a task force of faculty,
students, and administrators to educate not only members of
fraternities and sororities, but reach out to other groups such as
athletic groups or band. According to Strom, hazing sites can be found
“anywhere with group dynamics.”

Yet even with all that energy and effort, Dr. Kimberly Barrett,
Southeast’s dean of students, doesn’t share Rullman’s confidence about
the disappearance of hazing.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever solved it,” she says. “You can do
things to educate your campus, but you always need to be vigilant to
educate a new group of students.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Delta Sorority Chapter Suspended on Hazing Charge

LEXINGTON, Ky. — University of Kentucky officials have suspended a
sorority from campus following charges that it physically and mentally
abused pledges last semester.

Delta Stigma Theta is the second Greek organization to be charge
with hazing at the university during this academic year and the fifth
since 1990. The school suspended Stigma Alpha Epsilon social fraternity
for hazing pledges in May 1997.

The allegations against Delta Stigma Theta were detailed in a May
22 letter sent from the Dean of Students Office to chapter president
Chyrita Banks and the sorority’s regional office in Flint, Michigan.
The letter came after a two-month investigation.

Kentucky’s Greek Affairs Office became aware of the incident in
late March after Dean of Sororities Susan West got an anonymous phone
call from a Delta alumna. Banks denied the charge against Delta Sigma

“They’re didn’t listen to us. All they listened to was a bunch of
lies,” Banks said. “There’s no evidence, and I wonder why? Because
nothing happened to them.”

West said sorority officers also reportedly met with pledges in the
first week of March to initiate them, weeks before the planned
initiation. At that time, they also had not received approval from
their national headquarters to begin initiating new members, West said.

“They were not supposed to be in any contact with the candidates at
the time that there were activities going on,” West said. “We felt like
some of the activities that were going on were hazing.”

West would not elaborate on that type of physical and mental abuse that allegedly occurred.

Under the terms of the current suspension, the chapter will not be
permitted to register as a student organization again until fall 2001.
Despite the suspension, the sorority has options.

“They can still exercise their option to appeal,” said Dr. David
Stockham, dean of students. “They have that right, so we have to
preserve it.”

Chapter officers have not yet responded in writing to the
university. The sorority has thirty days to appeal the change, as
required by the school’s student code of conduct. None of Delta Sigma
Theta’s national officers could be reached for comment.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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