PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas — One of Texas’ oldest universities has sought to come to grips in the last year with one of the age-old problems of campus life – hazing. But officials at Prairie View A&M were aware of a problem long before the death of a fraternity pledge during a physically punishing initiation ritual.
Interviews and records reviewed by The Associated Press reveal that the death last October of 20-year-old Donnie Wade II of Dallas was at least the seventh hazing incident in seven years brought to the attention of officials at the historically Black institution 45 miles northwest of Houston.
University administrators said they believe they’ve done everything possible to curb hazing on their campus. Those efforts include suspending offending organizations and conducting annual programs with an anti-hazing message. Since Wade’s death, all student groups have been barred from recruiting new members until an anti-hazing workshop is held next month.
But some experts who have studied college hazing say the number of incidents indicates that the school, part of the Texas A&M University System, may not have been vigilant enough.
“If you have so many incidents that it’s nearly an annual activity, especially something that by nature is secret, you have to acknowledge there’s more going on than you’re probably aware of, and that should prompt action,” said Norm Pollard, dean of students at Alfred University in New York and a leading hazing researcher.
Dr. Ricky Jones, a professor of Pan-African studies at the University of Louisville and the author of a book on hazing by black Greek-letter organizations, said Prairie View’s practice of suspending groups instead of kicking them off campus for good has allowed the problem to fester.
“Schools are falling short if they don’t have a true zero-tolerance policy,” he said.
Wade collapsed after he and other prospective members of the Dangerous Delta Theta chapter of Phi Beta Sigma participated in pre-dawn physical training, or PT. The initiation ritual included pushups, situps, running in place, running the bleachers and other exercises.
Instead of calling emergency personnel, fraternity members drove Wade to a hospital 30 miles away, where he was dead on arrival. An autopsy concluded he had suffered from medical conditions aggravated by the training.
In a lawsuit filed against Phi Beta Sigma and several members, Wade’s parents allege the hazing also included paddling and a strict bread and water diet.
The results of a criminal investigation are due to be presented to a Waller County grand jury today.
But while tragedy has prompted stringent action, interviews, correspondence obtained by the AP under the Texas Public Records Act and other records reveal a campus where students joining organizations endured paddling, verbal abuse, midnight runs and other hazing in the months and years before Wade’s death.
One incident in 2008, involving a sorority linked to the school’s nationally known band, sent a student to the hospital with a concussion and prompted a public warning from the university’s late band director, George Edwards. “Somebody can lose their life behind it, and it’s not worth it,” Edwards, who died last year, told the website InsideHigherEd.com.
In another episode, a fraternity member complained to campus police in December 2007 that his Alpha Phi Alpha frat brothers threatened him because of his anti-hazing stance. “To put it frankly, I refused to participate in the activities to go and get my butt whupped,” Johnie L. Jones said in an interview with the AP.
Just six days before Wade’s death, the university’s student conduct office received an e-mail from a student worried about the pledging process of a student group for communications majors. “I really wanna be a member of the organization, but they are going about it all the wrong way and I need help to stop the hazing,” the student wrote.
School president George C. Wright said in an interview that he has been troubled by a “code of silence” that has protected hazing at the 132-year-old university, the second oldest public institution in Texas. But he said he would not second-guess the school’s responses to the earlier incidents.
“There’s nothing more we could have done before the Wade incident,” he said.
Wright, who assumed the presidency in 2003, said he believes Wade’s death has attracted undue attention in part because it occurred at a historically Black institution. Students hazing elsewhere are considered “silly kids,” he said, “where here they’ll focus more on the institution and say, `I can’t believe they allow these things.'”
Jones, who has agreed to serve as an expert witness in the Wade’s lawsuit, said the hazing by Black student groups deserves special attention because it involves physical pain intended to prove one’s manhood. That is more dangerous than rituals based on drinking games and pranks, he said.
Too many people “don’t want to stop it because they see it as the primary identity building process for these groups,” he said. Jones said one exception is Southern Methodist University, which revoked the charter of Alpha Phi Alpha in 2004 after a pledge nearly died from being forced to drink hot sauce and water.
At Prairie View, several organizations, including Phi Beta Sigma, still maintain their gathering spots for members under the broad trees on the main campus lawn despite suspensions for hazing.
In an interview, Wade’s parents said their son was aware that the university’s Alpha Phi Alpha chapter was under investigation for hazing but wasn’t alarmed.
“He felt like nobody in their right mind would actually try to haze somebody when you’ve already got an investigation going on,” Donnie Wade Sr. said.
Associated Press writer Sarah Portlock in Houston contributed to this report.