Despite penalties, hazing continues at Jackson State Band
by Gary Pettus
Jackson State University last week punished 45 members of the Sonic Boom, the school's nationally recognized marching band, for an alleged off-campus hazing incident.
Also last week, a Mississippi man was punished for his role in a hazing incident involving the Southern University band in a Louisiana court.
Jeremy Dixon, 23, of Natchez was put on probation Wednesday after pleading no contest to criminal conspiracy to commit second-degree battery and misdemeanor hazing. He was one of seven band members charged with hazing band members before the Bayou Classic in New Orleans.
In spite of harsh penalties for hazing, including student suspensions and possible jail time, the practice persists - kept alive by tradition, fear of rejection, peer pressure, secrecy and misplaced revenge.
"It may be a stretch, but to me it seems a bit like child abuse," said Joe Paul, vice president of student affairs at the University of Southern Mississippi.
"Victims of hazing have said to me, 'When I get over to the other side of this, I'm going to make sure it doesn't happen again to anyone.'
"Then they end up continuing the behavior on someone else. It's the same pattern."
The pattern can be deadly.
Since 1837, 154 people have died from hazing at American colleges, national hazing expert and author Hank Nuwer has reported.
Between September 2008 and February 2009, six students died.
Paul's child-abuse comparison is valid, said Angela Herzog, a clinical psychologist in Jackson. Often, child-abuse victims subject their own children to the treatment they endured.
"Hazing, like child abuse, is what you know," Herzog said.
"With hazing, there is the added component of peer pressure. Things people vow they would never do otherwise, they give in to the presence of peers."
Hazing is any humiliating, degrading, abusive activity expected of those hoping to join a group, regardless of their willingness to participate.
That is, "In order for someone to be accepted, they have to suffer," Herzog said.
Patrick Bridgeman was accepted as a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity at Millsaps College, where he graduated in 2002.
"There is a ton of pressure on a person who is trying to get in any organization," he said.
"I don't condone hazing, but I do understand why people go through it. It's to be accepted or respected."
The tradition resonates on college campuses in the South, said Charles Reagan Wilson, Cook Professor of History and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi.
"Honor is important to the Southern hazing system.
"You gain honor, somehow, by surviving humiliations."
Those humiliations include extreme alcohol consumption, isolation, sleep deprivation and sexual activity.
But there's a difference, between hazing and discipline, said Corey Dixon, a May graduate of Mississippi Valley State University.
"We didn't have many instances of hazing reported," said Dixon, 26, who was the Valley band's drum major at one time.
"But there were some misunderstandings. A lot of times, if you messed up on a couple of notes, you ran a couple of laps. That's to motivate you to get better.
"Everyone agreed beforehand they would do that.
"That's not hazing."
Whatever hazing is, some people say victims bear partial responsibility for its survival.
"You're not in your mommy and daddy's house anymore," said Matthew Haynes, 29, a 2002 JSU grad and former Sonic Boom trombonist.
"You're an adult; you're responsible for your actions.
"If I agree to the conditions, and go through it, I can't complain, because I allowed it to happen. Both parties are at fault.
"Now, if you say, 'No,' and they still slap you, that's assault. If someone hits you, that's breaking the law."
Whoever is ultimately responsible for hazing, many students see no reason, or recourse, for stopping it, said Sparky Reardon, Ole Miss' dean of students.
"They say they believe this is what they are supposed to do. They say, 'It's tradition. I have no power to stop it.' "
For that reason, many students are reluctant to report hazing, USM's Paul said.
"Any penalties against it are difficult to enforce, because, much too often, students drive this behavior well underground."
Still, a big chunk of it was unearthed in a recent study involving more than 11,000 college students.
The National Study of Hazing, a 2008 report by two University of Maine professors, found, among those who belong to campus organizations, the highest rates of hazing occur on athletic teams and in fraternities/sororities .
But 55 percent of all members of campus organizations said they experienced hazing.
Hazing is the charge at JSU, where up to 45 members of the 280-member Sonic Boom marching band were suspended indefinitely amid reports of alleged abuse against 22 freshmen musicians.
One suffered a fractured shoulder, the university reported Tuesday.
The students were paddled and beaten, a university police investigation showed.
"There's a tradition that goes way back, and most of it's simple things, like making a freshman sing - and he can't sing - or making him carry stuff for an upperclassman," said Haynes, the former Sonic Boom member.
"But some people take it to the extreme; they take it out on a freshman for something that was done to them."
A judicial panel made up of students and staff will hold a hearing on the matter in the coming week, JSU spokesman Anthony Dean said. "We won't know anything else to report until then."
The reports of hazing shocked Yolanda Brown, 32, a 1999 JSU grad who played piccolo for the Boom.
"We did have the physical training we had to do after a summer of eating bad food - what we called 'detox,' " she said.
"But this hazing is not what the Boom is about. We had fun together when I was there. It was like a family."
Hazing is meant to foster brotherly or sisterly type ties.
"The bonds created among those that have gone through the hazing together can be extremely strong," says an August 2009 report from the Fraternity Executives Association: Hazing: Not Just for College Anymore.
"Many students even look back fondly on their time of hazing, because the shared experience helped build relationships," the report says.
Movies, such as Animal House, Old School and Accepted, also reinforce a romantic or comic view of hazing, said Ole Miss' Reardon.
"It's a constant battle to educate our students about this, to get across the message that there's no organization anywhere that's worth sacrificing your well-being or self-esteem for," he said.
"The movies they see never show the chapter being closed down or the band being suspended or the football team suffering.
"They never show the broken spirit. They never show the funeral."
Hazing: the law
Mississippi has laws against hazing.
* A first-degree offense, in which someone causes physical injury, carries a maximum fine of $2,000 or six months in jail.
* A second-degree offense, in which a person "creates a substantial risk of physical injury," carries a maximum fine of $1,000.
Source: The Mississippi Code