Brutal Haze

September 8, 2010

A litany of violent hazing allegations made by a former Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority pledge have cast a pall on the organization, fueling concerns about ongoing physical abuse within the Greek System -- and particularly within historically African American organizations.

Courtney Howard, a former San Jose State University student, has filed a civil lawsuit alleging she was subjected to ritualized beatings and paddlings by her Sigma Gamma Rho sisters, four of whom have already been convicted of misdemeanor hazing in a criminal court. The allegations bear some resemblance to those at the heart of a hazing case involving another Sigma Gamma Rho chapter, at Rutgers University, where the chapter has been suspended and six members still face trial in municipal court.

While hazing is certainly not unique to African American Greek organizations, some say a disturbing -- while anecdotal -- pattern is emerging with respect to physical abuse.

“Particularly amongst African American fraternities and sororities, the notion of violence being normal has taken real root,” said Lawrence C. Ross Jr., author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities.

Others disagree about whether there's empirical evidence to support a greater embrace of violent hazing -- as opposed to the alcohol-fueled variety -- in black Greek-letter organizations, but the Sigma Gamma Rho allegations are yet another potential example in a growing list.

Historically black fraternities and sororities have made public and vocal efforts to reform their pledge processes, and the National Pan-Hellenic Council -- a coordinating body for all nine national organizations -- voted at a 1990 convention to ban “pledging” and instead institute a shortened “member intake” process. This followed the highly publicized death of Joel Harris, a Morehouse College student who died while pledging Alpha Phi Alpha. While Harris’s death was attributed to an irregular heartbeat, he had also been subjected to a ritual known as “thunder and lightning,” wherein pledges are repeatedly punched and slapped, a coroner’s report found.

Echoing the concerns of others who’ve studied the history of hazing within black fraternities and sororities, Ross said new educational programs have not erased a history of abuse that has merely moved underground.

“What they are really interested in is the idea that they have power over another person, and that becomes extremely seductive,” Ross said of abusive members.

Howard’s case, filed this week in California Superior Court, provides the portrait of a motivated student -- vice president of her high school class -- who participated in multiple sports and headed to San Jose with an eye toward becoming a high school Spanish teacher. What she found, however, was a world of rampant abuse among her would-be sorority sisters, who warned that “snitches get stitches” if they speak out about hazing, the complaint states.

On a series of nights in 2008, chapter members hit pledges on their hands and knuckles with wooden spoons, slammed them into walls, punched pledges and threw books and coins at them, the complaint states.

Sigma Gamma Rho’s executive director, Rachel Morris, declined to comment Tuesday, referring Inside Higher Ed to a Charleston law firm that had closed for business by the time Morris returned a second phone call.

Sigma Gamma Rho’s San Jose chapter has been punished by the university with an eight-year suspension, which began in 2008. The suit alleges, however, that the university failed to fully investigate the claims, failed to enforce its code of conduct, and failed to protect Howard from retaliation.

While not commenting on the details of the civil suit, a spokesman for the university said San Jose State takes hazing allegations seriously and provides channels for students to make anonymous complaints.

“Certainly, Greek life [and] belonging to a fraternity or sorority as part of a college experience is something we support and think is valuable if that is something a student chooses to do,” said Larry Carr, a university spokesman. “We want our students to have those kinds of experiences, but we also want our students to know first and foremost that they are safe here as San Jose students. That’s got to be the first priority.”

As for Rutgers, the Sigma Gamma Rho case there is still unfolding. Six members face hazing charges stemming from January arrests for the alleged beating of pledges. While the defendants were initially charged with aggravated hazing -- a felony -- prosecutors have downgraded the charges to simple hazing, a misdemeanor, a lawyer representing one of the defendants said. Moreover, the women were exonerated in a university administrative proceeding, the lawyer added.

“Everybody was vindicated,” said Royce Russell, who represents Kesha Cheron, one of the defendants. “There was unanimous opinion as to their innocence. Nonetheless, the prosecutors decided to move forward.”

Rutgers officials would not discuss the outcome of the hearing, but they did confirm that Cheron is still enrolled and that the other defendants -- Shawna Ebanks, Llana Warner, Vanessa Adegbite, Joana Bernard and Marie Charles -- have graduated.

Robert Adochio, who is prosecuting the case, is recovering from a recent surgery and was unavailable for comment, an assistant at his office said Tuesday.

Scholars Disagree on Way Forward

To the extent that there’s a limited body of scholarly work devoted to hazing within black Greek-letter organizations, there are varying opinions among those scholars about what to do about it. Matthew Hughey, an assistant professor of sociology at Mississippi State University, places himself in a camp that seeks reform without what he views as the abolition of rituals intrinsic to the history and power of these groups.

Hughey argues that fraternities and sororities should incorporate some of the now-underground rituals into the reformed membership intake process established in the 1990s, “so people don’t feel like they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

While not denying that violence exists within some fraternities, Hughey also rejects the idea that violent hazing is more prevalent or growing within historically black organizations.

“This is a cultural stereotype yet again: White folks have trouble with alcohol; black folks have problems with violence,” said Hughey, co-editor of a forthcoming book called Black Greek-Letter Organizations, 2.0: New Directions in the Study of African American Fraternities and Sororities (University Press of Mississippi).

Others, however, think there may be some merit to studying whether the correlation between violence and hazing is stronger in historically black Greek organizations. Indeed, a University of Louisville professor is convinced that’s the case. Ricky Jones, a professor of Pan-African studies and himself a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, said he’s transitioned from a hopeful reformer to a hardened realist when it comes to assessing the future of these groups.

“I don’t think Sigma Gamma Rho or Kappa Alpha Psi is worth one more black kid’s life. That’s where I come down,” said Jones, author of Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities (SUNY Press).

“Please print this,” he added: “I would wager these are the most dangerous recognized student organizations on college and university campuses now.”

Jones points toward a number of recent cases that have helped bring him to this conclusion:

  • Recent allegations of hazing at the University of South Florida’s Omega Psi Phi chapter.
  • A 2009 case at Northern Kentucky University, where Delta Sigma Theta pledges reported injuries from what was believed to be an initiation ritual.
  • The 2009 death of a Prairie View A&M student, who died in a Phi Beta Sigma hazing ritual that was preceded by multiple hazing complaints, according to news reports.

While Jones has studied historically black Greek groups, he doesn’t reserve his criticism for them, noting that hazing has been rampant across historically white fraternities and sororities as well. While the abuses may differ in form, they're equally deadly, he suggests.

“I say get rid of them all,” Jones said. “If the whites can’t get rid of the alcohol abuse, get rid of them. If the blacks can’t get rid of the physical abuse, get rid of them.”

Change, however, has historically been slow and incremental in the Greek system, said Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College and author of The Hazing Reader, among three other books on hazing.

“I think it was about 1990 when the African-American Greeks nationally started taking some action, and it had quite a while to incubate,” he said. “That’s an awful lot of alums and an awful lot of members to try to change a culture, and there really is an element of denial that anything bad is going to happen to us."

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