Universities are no longer turning a blind eye to what happens inside the fraternity house.
After horrific, firsthand accounts from students and multiple recent deaths, the long-accepted practice of hazing — both in Greek organizations and other university clubs — has been thrust into the spotlight, and a fierce, unprecedented crackdown from college leaders is gaining traction nationwide.
"In the past, it's always been a 'boys will be boys, no big deal' kind of attitude. But we're learning how you prevent this from happening," said Tracy Maxwell, executive director of hazingprevention.org, the leading organization in the fight to eradicate decades-old rituals of forced drinking, brutal beatings and creatively unsavory customs.
Most common in the fraternity and sorority culture, hazing also has found its way into other parts of college life.
On Wednesday, state prosecutors in Florida charged 13 people in the November death of Robert Champion, 26, a drum major in Florida A&M University's legendary marching band. Champion was severely beaten and later died.
Eleven of the people, whom authorities did not name pending their arrests, face charges of hazing resulting in death, a third-degree felony in Florida that could result in more than five years' imprisonment. The two others face misdemeanor charges. Nobody is being charged with murder or manslaughter, charges that could involve doubts about who dealt what specific blow.
"The death is nothing short of an American tragedy," State Attorney Lawson Lamar told reporters in Orlando, Fla. "No one should have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death."
Similar practices, Ms. Maxwell said, have infected football teams, bands, clubs and other groups at schools across the country.
About 55 percent of all college students who join fraternities, sororities, sports teams and other social or athletic groups report being subjected to hazing, according to a 2008 University of Maine study. For many, it's often as innocuous as being forced to do peers' laundry or to carry their books to and from class.
In other cases, it takes a deadly turn.
Cornell University student George Desdunes died of alcohol poisoning in February 2011. Authorities said his brothers in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity forced him to drink as part of the group's pledging ritual. His blood alcohol content was 0.409 at the time of death. Four students were charged with first-degree hazing, misdemeanors in the state of New York.
After the high-profile incident, university President David J. Skorton declared that "pledging as we know it has to stop."
He ordered all Greek chapters on the Cornell campus to come up with initiation systems that do not involve "dangerous or demeaning acts" forced upon pledges.
Other institutions have taken similar steps. Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim in March called hazing "harmful and destructive" and put his school's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter on probation for three academic terms after its treatment of pledges.
The fraternity is accused of forcing pledges to drink massive quantities of alcohol, take shots of saltwater and vinegar and swim in kiddie pools filled with a mixture of rotten food and vomit.
The practices were revealed by a former student, who blew the whistle on his fraternity brothers in a recent Rolling Stone magazine piece. In response, Mr. Kim also established a campus committee tasked with putting a permanent end to hazing.
Alpha Epsilon Pi closed its Boston University chapter after police found five pledges stripped to their underwear, bound and covered in chili sauce and other condiments in the fraternity house basement. Boston police have charged 14 people with hazing, assault and battery and other offenses.
In a statement, the fraternity, founded in 1913, blasted the conduct of its members.
"The actions being reported at Boston University do not reflect our fraternity's values or principles of brotherhood," the group said. We "are reaching out to every one of our 160 campuses to make sure that all of our brothers understand our position."
In the broader fraternity world, more and more members have realized that hazing needs to be snuffed out, said Peter Smithhisler, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 75 fraternities on more than 800 campuses in the U.S. and Canada.
"We don't condone it, we don't tolerate it, we don't support it. Within the fraternity industry, we acknowledge that hazing is a cancer that must be cut out," he said. "There is significantly more awareness [today] of what hazing is and what will not be accepted. The communities in which we live, the fraternities have a zero-tolerance policy. No one is hiding anything."
Leadership from universities and fraternities, analysts say, is vital in addressing the problem.
Although some students may simply refuse the humiliating initiation requirements, many go along with them rather than risk their reputations, Ms. Maxwell said.
"There are so many students who are leaving our schools with deep psychological trauma that they're never going to talk about," she said. "The shame is so deep, that somehow they're weak, that they couldn't take it. The culture reinforces that."
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Ben Wolfgang is a national reporter for The Washington Times. Before coming to the Times, he spent four years as a political reporter in Pennsylvania. His focus is on education and science policy. Ben lives in southeast D.C. and has played guitar in several bands while still in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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