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Fraternity hazing rituals come to court

Violent initiation rites at United States universities and colleges, in which students are required to undergo beatings, punchings, branding and alcohol abuse before they are able to join fraternities, are under challenge in the courts.

The peculiarly American phenomenon of hazing, which takes the form of violence for initiation into black fraternities and alcohol abuse for entry to white ones, is frowned on by college authorities and the national offices of fraternities. In fact violent hazing was banned four years ago.

The problem is making any rules stick. The business of fraternities is shrouded in secrecy. Like Freemasons, members of the Greek societies at American universities are sworn to silence. Membership brings a strong sense of belonging and comradeship with people who will look after you through life, so there is a powerful incentive to stay silent.

Now the wall of silence is being penetrated. Wardell Pride, 24, is suing his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, at Tennessee State University.

He maintains that fraternity officers knew of the violent hazing and failed to take adequate steps to prevent it.

Wardell Pride should know. Not only was he subjected to the violent initiation rites himself, but he became chapter president and one of the 12 regional coordinators for Kappa Alpha Psi.

His lawsuit is supported by affidavits from five other fraternity members at Tennessee State. It describes ritualised physical abuse meted out in "heat sessions" that last several hours.

One activity, called "the cut" involved the student who was applying to join the fraternity being required to bend over, grab his left ankle with his right hand and cover his crotch with his left hand. He would then be beaten with a wooden cane.

In another, known as "bringing the knowledge", the applicant has to stand or kneel and bow his head. A fraternity member stands on a chair or bed with a dictionary or other large book in his hand and jumps down, slamming the book on to the applicant's head.

When those who seek membership are admitted to the fraternity, they undergo one final ritual, reminiscent of the way slaveowners would treat their slaves in the Old South: being burned on the upper arms and over the heart with a branding iron.

"It burns all night long, all day to the next day," said Mr Pride. "It's all you feel."

In the past two years, Kappa Alpha Psi chapters at 35 colleges and universities have been disbanded or had members suspended for hazing violations -- a sign that such abuses are no longer being tolerated. Earlier this year, the fraternity, which has 300 undergraduate chapters, suspended the admission of new members.

It had been shaken by an incident at Southeast Missouri State University where a journalism student, Michael Davis, was beaten, kicked and body-slammed to death during an initiation ritual.

A student at the University of Georgia applying to join another fraternity was also reported to have suffered from infected buttocks after being repeatedly beaten during hazing. There are other similar cases.

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