Hazing Accusations Against a Sorority
By Tamar Lewin
In two separate hazing cases at universities this year, members of Sigma Gamma Rho, an African-American sorority, have been charged with beating their pledges with wooden paddles.
At Rutgers, six members of Sigma Gamma Rho were arrested in January and charged with aggravated hazing, a felony, after a pledge reported that she had been struck 200 times over seven days before she finally went to the hospital, covered with welts and bloody bruises.
Both the university and the national sorority suspended the Rutgers chapter. The charges were reduced to simple hazing, a disorderly persons offense. The trial, originally set for this month, has been delayed because of the prosecutor’s surgery.
In the San Jose State case, Courtney Howard, a former student at the university, charged in a civil lawsuit, filed Aug. 31, that over a three-week period in 2008 she was subjected to progressively more violent hazing from Sigma Gamma Rho members. Ms. Howard claims in her suit that they beat her and other pledges with wooden paddles, slapped them with wooden spoons, shoved them against the wall, and threatened that “snitches get stitches.”
“One of the girls who was a big sister told me it was supposed to be so you can feel what your ancestors went through in slavery, so you will respect what you came from,” Ms. Howard said.
In 2008, San Jose State suspended the sorority chapter until 2016. Four of the sorority members have pleaded no contest to misdemeanor hazing charges, and been sentenced to 90 days in county jail, two years of probation and barred from any further involvement in the sorority.
Ms. Howard’s civil suit charges that the university and the sorority were negligent in investigating and responding to her accusations of hazing.
Larry Carr, a spokesman for San Jose State, said he could not comment on pending litigation. But hazing is illegal, he said, and the university makes serious efforts to educate all incoming students - and their parents - about how to deal with it.
The Sigma Gamma Rho Web site, too, clearly states the sorority’s anti-hazing policy. “Hazing is wrong, prohibited and unauthorized,” it says. “Members found guilty of hazing will be permanently and irrevocably expelled from Sigma Gamma Rho.”
The two current cases are not the sorority’s only hazing violations. The Sigma Gamma Rho chapter at San Jose State was suspended - that is, stopped from recruiting new members or using university facilities - seven years ago for hazing violations. And two years ago, because of hazing activities, the sorority’s chapter at the University of Texas at Austin was penalized. The sorority has more than 500 chapters, but is the smallest of the four black sororities.
Jonathan Charleston, general counsel to Sigma Gamma Rho, said Tuesday that the sorority had not yet been served with a copy of the complaint, and that the sorority did not comment on pending litigation.
“Any allegations of hazing are taken very seriously and immediately confronted by Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority,” said a statement from the sorority.
Many white fraternities and sororities haze their pledges, too, but there are differences, according to Lawrence C. Ross Jr., author of “The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities.”
“Most predominantly white fraternities and sororities haze around alcohol, but African-American fraternities and sororities typically haze around something physical, violent,” he said.
After the 1989 death of Joel Harris, a Morehouse student, after being beaten on the chest and face - a ritual known as “thunder and lightning” - the nine African-American fraternities and sororities changed their process for taking in new members to try to stop hazing, said Mr. Ross, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha. But the changes drove hazing underground, he said, where it has become more violent, giving rise to more criminal charges and lawsuits.
Angela Reddock, the lawyer representing Ms. Howard, and Mr. Ross both say that hazing has been such a strong tradition in black Greek life that it is hard to end. “I believe this kind of hazing is going on in African-American sororities and fraternities all over the country,” she said. “It’s so deeply ingrained in the culture that I think the only thing that will stop it is if they’re put out of business because their insurance companies drop them.”
In Texas, a Phi Beta Sigma fraternity pledge at Prairie View A&M died last year after collapsing during a rigorous predawn pledging exercise. And in January, the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity stopped accepting new members because of hazing incidents; new members will be accepted again later this fall.
While some students do cross the color lines, in both directions, Greek life remains one of the most segregated aspects of higher education. Ms. Howard said that, as an only child, she had looked forward to forging close bonds with sorority sisters at San Jose State. “I’d heard rumors about paddling,” she said. “But when I went to all the black Greek welcome nights, they made it very clear that they don’t condone hazing.”
And yet, she said, the required “set nights” quickly turned violent.
“The hazing got progressively worse,” Ms. Howard said. “But I thought I could tolerate it, and I just kept going out of fear. They drill into you that if you drop, you’re weak, and snitches get stitches.”
After the fifth night, Sept. 13, the complaint said, Ms. Howard was injured enough that she went to a doctor. On the 10th night, a pledge was knocked unconscious, and the others were told to carry her into the bathroom and wake her by splashing water on her face, but not to take her to a doctor or tell anyone what happened. The paddling began on the 11th night, and continued through the final night, Sept. 29. Pledges were told that they would each be hit with the wooden paddle seven times each night, once for each founder of the sorority.
According to the complaint, both Ms. Howard’s roommates, who saw her bruises, and her mother, reported the hazing to representatives of the sorority and the university. Ms. Howard filed a formal complaint with the university and her mother met with the associate vice president of student life, who, the mother said, told her that hazing had been getting worse at the university, and asked for suggestions for fixing the problem.
That fall, sorority members began to harass her, Ms. Howard said, so she did not return to campus after winter break. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/us/06hazing.html