Deadly Hazing Continues On College Campuses

Oct 6, 2017
Originally published on October 6, 2017 10:10 am
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This time last year, Tim Piazza was a Penn State sophomore thinking about rushing a fraternity. In February, on his very first night as a pledge, the hazing began.

CAITLIN FLANAGAN: Because he was so drunk, he took a horrific fall down a steep flight of stairs into the basement and was obviously profoundly injured - a big bruise on his head, a bruise that quickly bloomed on his abdomen from a shattered spleen.

MARTIN: That's Caitlin Flanagan. She's reported Tim Piazza's story for The Atlantic. After Piazza's horrific fall, no one called for help. His fraternity brothers left him on the ground. They punched him, slapped him and stopped him from leaving to get help. Piazza died hours later. He was just 19 years old. More than a dozen of his fraternity brothers were charged. None were convicted.

Flanagan says these deaths are occurring far too often. But there were something that set this case apart. There were security cameras in the frat house. Video footage shows every excruciating detail - every second of Tim Piazza's hazing, the hazing the fraternity officially bans, the hazing Penn State doesn't allow. But Caitlin Flanagan says, at every major college fraternity, hazing is an open secret.

FLANAGAN: According to the best research out of the University of Maine, 80 percent of fraternity members are hazed. So...

MARTIN: What does that mean when you say it - 'cause hazing could be a spectrum. Does that mean some kind of...

FLANAGAN: It's a wide range of behaviors that are - at a large number of fraternities, includes what I would call sort of mortification of the flesh - really painful things like getting beaten sometimes, getting paddled, getting force-fed alcohol and sort of serving as their subalterns for most of your pledgeship, where you have to be on call all the time and then doing these lineups, extreme physical duress under lineups when you have to do lots of exercises and so forth.

But where the injuries tend to happen is when they're force-fed a tremendous amount of alcohol. There is a sense that at the core of hazing is a kind of manhood that says you endure; you shut up; you keep the secrets. And that's how you go forward and become a man in this context. So there's a really strong onus against calling for help. It's - the whole idea of hazing is you don't call for help. That's not what a man does.

MARTIN: This is perpetuated, as you point out in the piece, by alumni - by the national leadership who presumably have gone through something similar.

FLANAGAN: That's a really good point. You know, I've talked to many, many execs at the fraternities. And they certainly talk a great game about eliminating hazing, and they spend a lot of money to do it. But everyone, except for one who's no longer an executive - every single one I've ever talked to has candidly admitted that in his day he was hazed and hazed others.

MARTIN: In your conversations with other fraternity members, did you get the sense that there was a collective feeling of remorse about what happened to Tim?

FLANAGAN: There were 18 young men against whom charges were recommended. And in the process, they saw, probably for the first time, this video. Many of the young men were very callous in the courtroom. But one of them, in the first recess after showing part of that video, he was seen to absolutely collapse into tears, just - someone use the word decompensating. And so I do have a real compassion and empathy for that kid.

I think that part of the problem with these fraternities is it takes very young men, and it very quickly puts them in positions of profound moral unease and even into the position of committing criminal acts. And before they know it, they've done it. And when they take a breath the next day, the next month, even the rest of their lives and realize what they've been part of, I think that's really troubling. And I think that there may have been others who at home are slowly coming into a realization of just what they've done.

MARTIN: Where does the change need to happen? Where can it happen?

FLANAGAN: I think that the universities and colleges of this country made a profound mistake in the middle of the last century, in the 1960s, when they decided that they were going to partner with fraternities and have offices of Greek life and have some kind of supervision over the fraternities. Fraternities were not created to be another nice club you could join like the chess club. They were created to be outlaw organizations, private clubs. And I think universities and colleges need to stop advertising them, promoting them, suggesting to parents that they have any ability to supervise their behavior. They have proven over and over again, in all of these events where we have dead young men, that they can't supervise them.

MARTIN: Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. You can find her reporting in the November issue.

Caitlin, thanks so much.

FLANAGAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.