the Frat Rats:
Greeks Need to Expel Hazers in Their Midst
by Hank Nuwer
When I belonged
to a fraternity in college and was hazed and hazed others,
I hated the term "frat rat." Now, I try to exterminate
frat rats. It's my job.
First, an explanation
why that pejorative term "Frat rat" applies here
to hazers. I do not apply the term to those who do not haze
or are part of the growing Greek anti-hazing movement. I've
learned in my reading that a "rat" in farming communities
is a laborer hired to nibble patiently at an old barn's beams
and supports with a small tool until the whole structure collapses
-- just as he escapes.
rat" describes all Greek members who abuse, degrade,
and humiliate pledges -- then graduate. Metaphorically, these
few chew away at the foundations of Greek houses and threaten
to bring the system crashing down on the heads of all. They
leave, but their hazing practices stay.
My new book Wrongs
of Passage opens with the 1993 death of Chad Saucier, a community
college student from Mobile, Alabama. Auburn University's
Phi Delta Theta allowed Chad to pledge even though he was
academically ineligible by local and national rules. He died
grotesquely, dressed in a goofy elf suit, after swilling liquor
during a traditional Christmas party in which members "encouraged"
new "men" (all under 21) to drink. Having swilled
enough whiskey and Jagermeister to flatten four strapping
males, Chad's intestines twisted inside him as he convulsed
on the fraternity house floor. He may or may not have heard
a hammering against his own chest. A brother slammed Chad's
heart with his fists in a futile effort to bring him around.
Right up to the
minute Chad died, the Auburn members and pledges were laughing.
For them, hazing was a commonplace behavior without consequences.
Others even argued that what Chad went through failed to meet
their own personal definitions of hazing. In contrast, Chad's
parents and Auburn administrators expressed horror that he
died trying to please those fraternity brothers; they agreed
that the bottle exchange was a dangerous custom in need of
student life professional Deborah Shaw Conner, an outspoken
critic of hazing, could offer no assurance that the death
would not be repeated. "I have dealt with five hazing
cases in the last three months, all at Auburn University,
all with some of our older, traditional chapters," said
Conner, Director of Foy Student Union and Student Leadership,
in an e-mail interview for Wrongs of Passage. "One in
particular sounds so similar to what the Phi Delts were doing
the night Chad died: a Christmas party with lots of alcohol,
pledges getting drunk, pledges performing for the actives,
etc. Why are things not different after Chad's death? I wish
I had the answer."
Here is the answer.
Hazing is endemic in American schools from junior high through
graduate and professional schools. It is also rampant in the
military and a hidden cancer for oil riggers, firemen, and
others in the workforce. For example, an 18-year-old female
ambulance driver died from a booze binge her new male colleagues
asked her to endure as an initiation.
have been an important part of different cultures throughout
history. Few of us go through life without taking part in
some sort of rite of passage. I have no problem with the validity
and value of certain initiation rituals; the majority of people
who take part in fraternal initiations are "normal"
individuals, not sociopaths. What I am referring to are rituals
that exhibit cult-like characteristics - monopolizing someone's
time, robbing them of space, forcing them to accept an all-or-nothing
group mentality. In short, I am opposed to rituals of a pathological
nature - hazing as we've collectively come to call these wrongs
To stop the problem
of hazing in society, it will take large-scale, directed strategies
by the public, legislators, educators, and Greek groups. Past
fraternal solutions such as "Greek Week," "Help
Week," bans on pledging and dry houses were well-intentioned
(and may even have saved some lives), but they have failed
to kill the roots of hazing. The problem -- and student deaths
is mostly associated in the media with athletes and Greeks,
the finger pointing in the U.S. goes back to 1657, when Harvard
fined upperclassmen for freshman hazing. Many early college
presidents, preferring absolute order to the flourishing of
individual identities, encouraged hazing. They saw it as a
way to teach precedence, build school loyalty and assimilate
students from all economic classes.
Class hazing resulted
in hundreds of serious injuries and some deaths. (Other 19th
century presidents at Amherst, Michigan, Miami of Ohio, and
Indiana University condemned hazing.) With a few exceptions,
until the mid-1920s, most campus hazing deaths (Amherst, MIT,
Kentucky, Colgate, Hamilton, Franklin and Marshall, Northwestern,
Purdue, etc.) occurred in freshman-sophomore class scraps.
But after 1928, hazing deaths in fraternities began to eclipse
the total of class hazing deaths.
fully changed for the better since the 19th century. Too many
college administrators have turned their heads while hazing
goes on -- performed by fraternity chapters whose members
show unbridled school spirit and who contribute big bucks
as alumni. These presidents and deans instituted the right
policies, but students knew they could haze so long as they
didn't rub things in an administrator's face.
Until the 1970s,
hazing deaths occurred infrequently enough that college presidents
who suffered one could lament them as "isolated"
accidents. But the presence of alcohol in the initiations
of local and National Interfraternity Conference fraternities
contributed to a documentable rise in initiation deaths. Likewise,
serious beating injuries and occasional deaths in African-American
fraternities also began in the mid-70s (although alcohol has
been a factor in few deaths of black pledges). Sororities
had two hazing deaths in the 1970s (one in a local group and
one in a national) but none in the last 20 years. However,
alcohol-related deaths of sorority women in the 1990s have
raised the vigilance of national sorority headquarters.
The Alfred University/NCAA
survey last month revealed that nearly half of all collegian
athletes say they were first hazed in high school or even
in middle school. Thus, hazing -- a ritual that gives hazers
a sense of power, entitlement, and occasionally sadistic pleasure
-- must also be addressed by educators who work with teens
and preteens. Unfortunately, high school educators lag far
behind collegiate Greek administrators and the heads of Greek
headquarters when it comes to an awareness of hazing problems.
In the last decade, high school hazings include acts of sodomy,
sexual assaults and coerced sexual simulations, forced drinking,
paddlings, coatings with foul or vile substances, and the
eating of repulsive substances.
Why does hazing
flourish in many high schools? It may have something to do
with the fundamental drawbacks of the U.S. educational system,
which is charged with serving the needs of a great many young
people. Some teenagers are brilliant introverts who reject
the hero worship of athletes and beautiful people rampant
in high school. The students who attack these "outsiders"
sometimes act on overt cues from some teachers and administrators.
Often, these adults' words and actions teach the students
that nonconformists have two choices -- assimilation or isolation.
High school hazing of freshmen and rookies can be particularly
vicious when directed toward nonconformists struggling to
find an identity. In fact, hazing is part of a larger culture
of violence and destruction.
Could it be that
school shootings are just part of a destructive, self-fulfilling
prophesy? That the Columbine High School trenchcoat mafia
shooters acted from a misguided sense of revenge when they
opened fire? If so, all the more reason to end hazing and
Hazing in U.S.
Ending hazing in
U.S. secondary schools and colleges would be an important
step toward ending the wider acceptance of casual violence
in our culture today. Before that occurs, educators, legislators,
journalists, parents, students, and the public at large must
examine the issue of hazing intellectually and unemotionally.
A constant goal must be the desire to create civility in U.S.
classrooms. Educators err when they call for a return to the
values of founders and old-time students. Records of early
schools show that our forefathers were inclined, as children
and young adults, to partake in hazing acts few parents today
would want their children to emulate. In fact, many fraternity
chapters that haze rationalize their actions by calling them
a part of tradition. They ignore the best of what these national
fraternity founders strove to accomplish: a sense of community,
a system of honor, the courage to live one's ideals, and a
respect for the academic life of the mind and the benefits
So why don't college
presidents and trustees simply end hazing? The reality is
that while academe contains some of the country's finest minds,
they have not, as an Alfred University professor I interviewed
remarked, shown themselves to be a very heroic bunch. Too
many people in academe (uninvolved faculty, overworked administrators,
and students looking for a ticket to a future job) act like
members of a dysfunctional family. According to alcohol abuse
expert Jim Arnold, "addictive organizations" like
fraternities thrive in such a climate. They are unlikely to
change the behaviors they think give them status on campus.
It's only when a hazing death or disgusting incident occurs
-- something shocking that arouses the press' wrath and shames
administrators -- that there is likely to be widespread campus
acknowledgement that hazing is insidious and harmful.
In spite of dozens
of hazing deaths, only Alfred and Auburn Universities have
shown remorse by inviting the mothers of deceased pledges
to come to campus and speak of their grief. Why don't the
mass of students change their behavior even when more Chad
Sauciers die? Our larger culture has become inured to violence.
It elevates anyone who survives an ordeal like hazing. It
hates the "wimp" who says, "no, I'm outta here"
People Who Defend
I'm aware that
many people despise my stand against hazing made more than
20 years ago. These people tell me they want hazing to continue
-- despite its being illegal in 41 states, including Indiana.
I have received several e-mail messages defending hazing:--"America
is the land of the free [with] the freedom to join whatever
group that you want," wrote David O'Mara, 23. "If
I want to join a group that beats the crap out of me every
day, I can. If I want to join a group that requires me to
drink 6 gallons of wine in a day to join, I can. Pledging
my fraternity was the best thing I did." "I think
this is much ado about nothing," Suellen Shea of Vista,
California, wrote last night. "No wonder there are so
many wimps in society today. EVERYBODY WANTS TO BE A VICTIM!
Unless there is extreme physical harm being done then hazing
amongst teams, social clubs/groups, etc. is good and a bonding
experience. Once you've 'been there, done that' you're proud
of yourself and it is a brotherhood-bonding thing. I am the
wife of a Marine officer (former college football player &
frat guy) and mother of 3 sons -- all athletes, in frats.,
college grads, etc. AND ALL HAVE BEEN THRU THIS STUFF MANY
TIMES/ NO BIG DEAL!!!" "You are making a federal
case out of nothing. I bet you a case of beer that more people
are injured playing sports...than ever got hurt from [athletic]
initiations," said fraternity alumnus Mike Modde who
urged me to get a life. "Are you in a make-work program
to find something to write about? Figure out how many people
went down the road and got drunk but graduated and now have
become successful, raised a family, pulled pranks and even
survived an initiation."
Even many members
of the media defend hazing. Writers for Sports Illustrated,
Rocky Mountain News, and other publications praised the hazing
which 80 percent of all surveyed NCAA college athletes say
they have experienced." We're all for college and pro
hazing," said SI's Richard Hoffer, saying it builds camaraderie,
teaches humility. "All" presumably includes the
two New Orleans Saints rookies hospitalized after a 1998 gang-like
beat-in and the family of Nicholas Haben, a Western Illinois
Lacrosse Club rookie who died of drink during his initiation.
"I would laugh
were I the Douglas County (CO) district attorney who gets
handed the report on this so-called crime," wrote Bill
Johnson, a Rocky Mountain News columnist, after some high
school students were busted for taping first-year students
with duct tape and making them kiss shoes. "I would remember
my freshman and senior years of high school, when I got and
gave what those kids received," wrote Johnson. "I
would tell the police to bring me real crimes."
If Mr. Johnson
wants "real" crimes, high school hazings in the
1990s involve sodomy, sexual assault, and physical abuse.
Such media critics who extol the pleasures of collegiate team
hazing trivialize the death of Nicholas Haben and others like
him. And while few people want to see kids who haze (with
the exception of pledge deaths or serious injuries caused
by negligence, beatings, sadistic acts) packed in jails with
sociopaths and hardened criminals, ignoring them is equally
wrong. Charging hazers with a crime is an important step toward
getting them into awareness seminars and community service-related
programs where they can rethink their actions. What's also
needed is nationwide reform that allows middle schools and
high schools to hold back the diplomas of hazers and other
students guilty of uncivil behavior -- unless they can show
evidence of remorse, such as the performance of meaningful
Death of Hazing
All is not hopeless.
Indianapolis, which has the country's highest number of international
fraternity and sorority headquarters, is also a center of
Greek idea-sharing and reform. In part this is because several
executive directors have personally attended the funerals
of pledges. These individuals say they realize that Greek
life may be fun, rewarding, and worthy in its mentoring --
but it is not worth dying for. These leaders are sending undergraduates
a no-nonsense message: Eat and be merry, but drink responsibly
or tomorrow you -- and your chapter -- will die. Hundreds
of chapters nationally have been shut down for hazing or alcohol
violations. Many chapters that choose to go alcohol-free get
rewarded with foundation dollars to help them maintain their
fraternity houses. Also tightening the screws are local universities,
with Purdue, Indiana, Ball State, DePauw and Indiana State
(among others) getting much tougher on hazing and alcohol
violations in 1999 than in the 1980s.
Dave Westol, chief
executive of Indy-based Theta Chi, has seen what happens when
chapters endanger their pledges. Since 1997 three pledging
and/or alcohol-related deaths have occurred in New York and
New Jersey chapter houses of Theta Chi. One wrenching case
involved 17-year-old Theta Chi pledge, Bini Oja, in a 1997
alcohol-related hazing at Clarkson University (New York).
"The death at Clarkson was a terrible experience for
everyone involved. Not a day goes by that I don't think about
it," said Westol. "But, I also know that if we don't
respond to it with education and emphasis, we are not acting
in a responsible fashion. "Westol visits chapters and
repeats the message that hazing is wrong and that alcohol
can kill you if you abuse it. His former career as a Michigan
assistant prosecutor gives him a hard-edged approach to enforcement
when a chapter deceives him or shatters rules. He says he
gives a grace period to a chapter really trying to clean up
its act, but his patience erodes "with groups whose members
don't get it."
Of all the issues,
alcohol has caused the biggest problem for Greek headquarters.
In spite of educational forums, research, and speakers (which
do persuade some to avoid the pitfalls and dangers of alcohol),
the problem continues to escalate, according to studies conducted
by the College Alcohol Studies Program at the Harvard University
School of Public Health." This is a complicated issue,"
said alcohol abuse expert Jim Arnold. "For better or
worse, alcohol and the life of the traditional age college
student have gone hand in hand for ages. Many, if not most,
traditional age college students believe that college life
and alcohol use are synonymous." Arnold's dissertation,
sold on the Internet by Amazon.com, discusses the role of
alcohol in what he terms an addictive system. "Generation
after generation of fraternity-chapter members (in the group
I studied) are indoctrinated into the ways of the group, including
the pervasive use of alcohol," said Arnold. "And
the group I wrote about was not a 'bad' group. They were identified
on campus, by administrators and other in the know, as the
'most responsible' fraternity there."
Dave Westol broods
on finding ways to change the culture of drinking. He said
that his job is made harder when older fraternity alumni and
even parents view alcohol and hazing as romantic, college
"fun-things" to do. Alums and occasionally the fathers
of members come to chapter houses to relive their student
days by popping brews, giving undergraduates an unfortunate
example. "One of the challenges we face these days is
alumni and parents who say, 'Gee, I drank in my day....,'"
said Westol. "I answer, 'Yes, but not like they're drinking
today'... It's a different culture."
In 1997, many National
Interfraternity Conference fraternities (with the support
of the National Panhellenic Conference sororities who all
had alcohol-free house policies) decided that fraternities
would abolish alcohol in chapter houses by 2000. The historically
African American groups (with an umbrella group headquartered
in Bloomington) theoretically banned pledging in 1990 in a
similar reform effort. Unfortunately, not all undergraduate
chapters voted to accept the ambitious NIC/NPC Select 2000
(dry house) plan, just as many black chapters continue to
illicitly conduct hazing in so-called "renegade"
pledging activities. Some NIC member fraternities voted to
delay acceptance until 2003 or later. Outgoing NIC head Jonathan
Brant (he's taken a job with Beta Theta Pi Foundation in Ohio)
stressed in an interview that the dry house movement has been
delayed but remains alive. "There is still a desire to
address systematic change from entertainment-based chapters
to purposeful [chapters] on campus," said Brant.But some
observing the Greek scene are less than enamored with plans
to make houses alcohol-free.
Activist Rita Saucier,
whose son Chad died at Auburn, fears that some chapters that
signed on to be "dry" will break their vows. She
wonders if reforms are designed more by fraternal lawyers
to stop litigation than they are to stop pledging deaths.
"I believe dry houses are yet another way that fraternities
protect themselves in lawsuits," said Saucier. "It
is just another means of not being held accountable for hazing."
Dave Westol insists
that draining alcohol from the fraternal bloodstream is only
a start. The real job of reform ahead means changing the student
culture chapter-by-chapter -- working in tandem with others
hoping to make changes in society as a whole. Instead of serving
as the nation's bartender and recruiting potential alcoholics,
fraternities need to recruit members who find other, positive
ways to assert their maleness and individuality. "If
we change the culture, we change the type of men who join,"
Westol knows full
well the bright and dark sides of the young people he mentors.
A former hazer as a collegiate undergraduate who changed as
a matter of conscience, he is a fiery speaker who crosses
the country to speak before fraternity and sorority audiences.
He minces no words, hides no secrets. "...If I have just
one undergraduate walk up afterwards and say, 'You made me
rethink what we do and I'm going to make some changes,' then
it's been a success," said Westol. "Part of my motivation
is drawn from my personal experiences on both sides of the
hazing fence; part of it is, I am sure, feeling guilty about
what I did in the name of my fraternity; part of it is a response
to the arrogance of hazers -- the people who sit in the back
of the room, arms folded, muttering to themselves."
no reforms can bring new hope to the dead. Chad Saucier and
Chad's dreams will always be dead. He won't receive an Auburn
degree. He won't marry and father his own children. He won't
live the long, productive life of promise that his mother
and father saw ahead of him. He won't experience anything
positive the Greek system has to offer. To put it bluntly,
While Chad remains
in his grave, the frat rat species continues to haze. That's
unacceptable. One positive outcome, however, is that the national
Phi Delta Theta organization has taken an unrelenting position
toward fraternal alcohol misuse since Chad's death.
During my own fraternity
days at Buffalo State College this is what I experienced besides
hazing: camaraderie, the introduction to my lifelong writing
mentor, leadership skills, a million laughs, and those post-midnight
discussions about getting jilted, the meaning of life, the
death of buddies in Vietnam.
In short, the Greek
system introduced me to many quality people. I hope quality
Greeks won't rest until frat rats are extinct.
Nuwer: First published in Nuvo Newsweekly -- November 1999