Why hazing just won't go away

High-stepping FAMU marching band

The world famous FAMU marching band practices on the campus in Tallahassee. (STEPHEN M. DOWELL, ORLANDO SENTINEL / November 13, 2007)

Even with all of the outrage and demands for change set off by the hazing death of Robert Champion, I can't help but feel we've seen this movie before.

By now, it's a familiar script.

A student is injured or killed. People gasp, pound their fists on the table and call for an end to hazing.

Months or years go by, and another student drowns, overdoses or is savagely beaten. And we repeat ourselves all over again.

Remember Chad Meredith?

The 18-year-old pledge at the University of Miami drowned in 2001 after fraternity brothers told him to try to swim across Lake Osceola on the UM campus. Meredith had been drinking. It was cold. And he never made it.

His death inspired state legislators to pass in 2005 the toughest hazing law in the country. Hazing convictions suddenly carried the potential of prison time.

"There is an incredible arrogance with these fraternity guys," David Bianchi, the attorney who represented the Meredith family, told the Sentinel in 2005. "If they find out that the law in Florida has changed, they will not want to subject themselves to a felony. Going to jail — that will stop them."

If only it were that easy.

"We thought that at the time," Bianchi told me last week. "Yet these incidents continue ... I think it's worse today than ever."

Since Meredith died, more than 30 other people have also died in hazing or pledging-related incidents across the country, though Champion's is the only death in Florida.

The tough new law in 2005 was accompanied by tough talk. Consider this Tallahassee Democrat article that year about hazing, which reported: "Florida A&M University will declare an assault on hazing this fall, and students will be expected to attend seminars on the subject twice a year."

That was in reaction to a band member paddled so hard he had kidney failure.

Last week, in response to Champion's death, FAMU suspended classes to hold a meeting on hazing for students. The same day, a congresswoman proposed denying federal financial aid to students who haze.

And so the scenes play out again.

Some leading researchers on hazing have proposed changes they say could help cut down on hazing.

Fraternities, sororities and other groups on campus need to go dry because deaths are so often linked to heavy drinking, says Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana.

He also advocates for stiffer and more consistent criminal penalties.

Nuwer's work, along with other anti-hazing advocates, has increased awareness. Almost every university now has a hazing policy, and that wasn't the case 30 years ago.

Nuwer has documented 163 deaths that could be tied to hazing or pledging going back to 1838.

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