Connections: Chilling Florida

Is a crime less serious when it is committed by a group?

   Perhaps more disturbing than the hazing death itself — on Nov. 19, of a 26-year-old Florida A&M University student who was a drum major in its marching band — is the knowledge that brutality is ingrained in the culture of certain collegiate activities and Greek letter societies . . . and accepted by adults who should know better. It turns out, according to press reports, that a gauntlet of punches and kicks, called Crossing Bus C, was routine among band members, and that they felt it proved their strength and instilled pride.  
    I have not come across a good explanation of why it took almost six months for those allegedly responsible for Robert Champion’s death to be charged. But even if faculty members and administration did not actually conspire to cover up the killing, as a blight on the university’s prestigious band, we are certainly left with the impression that they knew about and tolerated hazing in general. That so many were on the bus when the hazing occurred, including a bus driver, is shocking.
    Compare what happened in Orlando, Fla., to the public outrage over the fact that it took authorities from Feb. 26 to April 11 to charge George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. During the six-month investigation in Florida, there were multiple incidents reported of hazing gone wrong. Among the 13 band members finally charged this month in Mr. Champion’s death is a 19-year-old who already had been accused of taking part in a hazing incident in which a 20-year-old woman’s leg was broken. That he continued to be an active member of the band indicates that hazing was condoned. Eleven of the 13 in the Champion case were charged with third-degree felonies and are facing no more than six-year prison sentences, if convicted. Is a crime less serious when it is committed by a group?
    A reporter on the Orlando Sentinel sent me the ages of the 11 charged with felonies. In addition to the 19-year-old, three are 20, two are 21, two are 23, two are 24, and one is 26. Should they be considered adults? They are old enough, indeed, to serve in the military, to vote, to drive, to live where they please, to take out bank loans — to shoulder all the normal, everyday responsibilities (and benefit from the normal, everyday advantages) of being an adult.
    The Florida A&M Marching 100’s specific forms of hazing, apparently, are somewhat atypical. The rites of passage of the average collegiate team, fraternity, or sorority most frequently hinge on requiring new members or pledges to imbibe insane quantities of alcohol, even when the risks and consequences of alcohol poisoning have been drummed into incoming freshmen’s heads during orientation week. Those who allow themselves to be subjected to dangerous hazing rituals are complicit in their own dehumanization, it seems to me.
    Florida A&M suspended four students and fired the marching band’s director, but then reinstated them. Students protested when some called for the university president’s resignation. An anti-hazing committee has been set up and a $50,000 fund established for faculty research into the nature and extent of hazing on campus.
    It will take a lot more to stop to it, to convince young men and women — in Florida and elsewhere — to find something better to do than degrade others and themselves.