Two years ago, Florida passed one of the country's toughest anti-hazing laws , making it a felony for students to participate in rituals that result in serious bodily injury or death. This week, a circuit court judge had the first chance to hand out punishment for violation of the state code.
A pair of former fraternity members at Florida A&M University received two-year prison sentences for their roles in hazing a pledge who said he suffered a ruptured eardrum and injuries to his buttocks after an initiation that involved boxing gloves and a wooden paddle. During sentencing, Judge Kathleen Dekker called the Kappa Alpha Psi members' actions "barbaric."
In cases of hazing, it's common for a university to distance itself from the accused. And while Florida A&M denounced the actions of the suspended students, Michael Morton and Jason Harris, several university officials -- including a former Board of Trustees chairman --- stood before the judge during an emotional hearing and asked for leniency.
Fred Gainous, a former university president and director of a campus agriculture research center, said after spending time with Morton and Harris, both during his tenure as president and during the trial, he felt obliged to speak on their behalf.
"My thinking was, I don't condone hazing; I abhor it and wish it wasn't a part of a [historically black college and university] culture," he said in an interview. "But I was there from a humanitarian point of view. These were two young men who have excelled in education in areas where minorities are underrepresented. Society would have been far better off if those young men had received 1,000 hours of community service. They've already been punished enough, and to put them in prison isn't forward-looking."
Marvin Green, assistant director for recreation at Florida A&M, said he asked for leniency because he believed the students' actions were "a one-time lapse in judgment" rather than part of a pattern of events. While he stands behind the convicted students, Green said the ruling sends a strong message to others who are considering initiation rituals.
Jurors have been unable to reach a verdict on whether three other former fraternity members are guilty for their alleged involvement in the hazing ritual. Florida A&M suspended the students for up to two years and removed the fraternity's charter until 2013, according to LaNedra Carroll, a university spokeswoman.
She said those who spoke on behalf of Harris and Morton did so as individuals, not as representatives of Florida A&M.
"The university could not take a position other than the fact that hazing won't be tolerated," Carroll said. "These were young men who were about to graduate. They were popular students here, so any way you look at it, this case is hard, and it's sad for the victims and all involved."
Both students were nearing completion of their degrees -- one in electrical engineering and the other in pharmacy. Gainous, whose presidency ended in 2004 after Florida A&M trustees voted to dismiss him in a time of financial turmoil, said he understands that the judge used some discretion -- the maximum penalty was five years in prison.
A lawyer who represents one of the convicted ex-students argued during the case that the Florida law fails to define "serious bodily injury" and that the accuser was a willing participant, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. But the latter point is moot, because the law states that hazing is a criminal activity, regardless of consent. According to the newspaper, the lawyer said that while race didn't affect the judge's sentencing in the case, the justice system is, in general, easier on white fraternity members.
Neither Florida A&M's vice president of student affairs or dean of students was available for comment Tuesday. Carroll said she didn't expect that any administrator would be upset that officials spoke on behalf of the former students.
But Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who specializes in campus conflict, violence and hazing, said the university officials' appearance does damage to the institution.
"It sends a mixed message," she said. "It's a reflection of society that so many people accept hazing rather than identifying with the victims."
On the same day that the Florida A&M sentences were announced, students and administrators at Florida State University were responding to a weekend incident that left four fraternity members there facing hazing charges. Dozens of fraternity pledges were found covered in odious liquids in a crawl space inside an off-campus house, according to Maj. Jim Russell of the Florida State University Police Department.
The students were charged with a misdemeanor -- the Florida law says hazing that creates a risk of injury or death (rather than actual injury or death) is under this category of a crime -- and released after posting bail, according to Russell. Florida State has suspended the chapter.
"Kids still seem to be testing the limits of the new law," Lipkins said. "There are more cases in Florida coming in than ever before, and there doesn't seem to be an awareness of the consequences. If it didn't seem like the state was going to prosecute, that's changed."