When most people hear the term “hazing” it conjures up images of fraternities. In reality however, hazing occurs in many arenas including fraternities and sororities, the military, athletic teams and student organizations (like marching bands) at both the high school and collegiate levels. Many believe that hazing in fraternities and in general is nothing more than silly antics and harmless pranks like those remembered from the 1980s hit comedy Animal House. The realities of hazing are dramatically different than the humorous images many people associate with the term. Hazing is an abuse of power that can have debilitating and life-threatening consequences. According to the research presented by Hank Nuwer (1990), journalist and author of several books related to hazing, hazing has been associated with more than 50 deaths in college fraternities and countless more physical injuries including paralysis, not to mention the devastating emotional effects that can result for so many young men and women.
Links Directory on Fraternity Hazing.
Eileen Stevens, a mother (and now grandmother) from New York lost her eldest son Chuck Stenzel in 1978 when he was a victim of hazing at Klan Alpine, a fraternity at Alfred University. One evening, the older fraternity brothers came to the dorms to pick up pledges (including Chuck who was a strong athletic young man) and bring them back to the fraternity house for a party. That night, Chuck died and the coroner told Ms. Stevens that the cause was alcohol poisoning. The fraternity and the university refused to accept responsibility or provide a thorough investigation. Incredulous, Eileen set out to investigate on her own. Over the next few weeks and months, Stevens refused to give up her quest to find out the truth. While she was stonewalled at nearly every turn by the institution and the fraternity, witnesses eventually came forward to share details of the night’s events. Eventually, Eileen had a much clearer picture of what had happened to her son that fateful night. As it turned out, Chuck and two other pledges were locked in the trunk of a car and were allegedly given a pint of Jack Daniels, a 6-pack of beer and a quart of wine and was told to consume it all by the time the car stopped. Later, the pledges were coerced to drink even more at the fraternity house until many passed out.
When Chuck passed out, he was carried upstairs and left on a mattress where he ceased breathing soon afterward (Adapted from Broken Pledges, Nuwer 1990).
Eileen Steven’s story is not the only one of such tragic proportions. Far too many parents have been awakened in the night to receive the devastating news of the loss of their child to hazing. For example, many are familiar with the devastating death of Scott Krueger a promising young freshman who died of alcohol poisoning while pledging a fraternity at MIT in the Fall of 1997. That same year, Binaya Oja died of alcohol poisoning while pledging a fraternity at Clarkson University and in 1992 Jonathan McNamara was killed after falling from a cliff while participating in a pledge outing. Tragically, these are not the only incidents of this kind. The most up-to-date and comprehensive account of such tragedies is summarized in Wrongs of Passage (1999).
The story of Eileen Stevens and her son Chuck is familiar to some as it was detailed in the book and subsequent television movie Broken Pledges. The story describes Eileen’s courageous battle to uncover the true cause of her son’s death and to educate others about the realities of hazing. Stevens’ tenacity in the face of such tragedy–her refusal to accept the notion that the fraternity had no responsibility for her son’s death–resulted in a host of controversy and public attention to the issue. Her efforts to educate and eliminate such dangerous traditions eventually led to the passage of an anti-hazing law in the state of NY. Eileen’s anger and grief were channeled, at least in part, to her amazing public awareness campaign that began in the state of NY and eventually spanned the country. Eileen’s compassion influenced thousands of lives as she told her story to student groups, university staff, faculty and administrators at hundreds of campuses as well as national meetings of fraternities and sororities over a 20-year period.
One of the most commonly asked questions about hazing in fraternities is why do young men and women participate in such horrific and life-threatening activities just to belong to a group? This seems like a reasonable question–but it reveals the lack of understanding about the dynamics of the hazing process. For example, many states that have passed legislation to prohibit hazing have recognized that the intensity of the peer pressure prevents hazing victims from providing true consent to participate in the activities in question. Additionally, many prospective members don’t realize and are not informed of what the pledging process and hazing will entail because this information is shrouded in secrecy by the brotherhood. This, combined with the increasing severity of the hazing over the weeks and months of the pledging process places the pledge in a very vulnerable position and hence, more susceptible to victimization. Compounding these dynamics in fraternities and other male groups is the desire for the pledge or prospective member to “be tough,” “stick it out” etc. and prove his masculinity rather than risk being identified as a wimp or sissy.