No place for hazing rituals
by Sylvain Comeau
|C.H.U.C.K. founder Eileen Stevens|
[ PHOTO: OWEN EGAN ]
Eileen Stevens's crusade began with a personal tragedy. In 1978, she and her husband were awakened late one night by the kind of phone call no parent ever wants to get. They were informed by the Dean of Students of New York state's Alfred University that their oldest son, Chuck, had died.
"He said that our son had attended a party, had apparently consumed a great deal of alcohol at the party, and that the probable cause of his death was alcohol overdose and exposure to cold." Stevens told her grim tale to a student audience last week as part of an effort to raise awareness of the dangers of hazing, the sometimes vicious initiation rites practised by some fraternities, sororities, and groups like sports teams and branches of the armed forces.
By the time Stevens and her husband got to the hospital, Chuck's body was already undergoing an autopsy. A pathologist confirmed that Chuck had succumbed to alcohol poisoning.
"He said that Chuck had obviously consumed an enormous amount of alcohol, a 'bizarre and grotesque mixture of alcohol.' He passed out, his lungs filled with fluid, and he literally drowned because he was in a deep state of unconsciousness, and he did not regurgitate.
(The pathologist) said, 'I don't believe it was your boy's experience with alcohol that killed him, but his inexperience. His body could not tolerate what he ingested.'"
The pathologist was right; Chuck was only an occasional drinker. No one could tell the family why these horrors had occurred until Stevens heard from Chuck's former roommate--and learned for the first time about hazing.
"He told me that, on the afternoon of Chuck's death, he had decided to pledge a fraternity called Klan Alpine. That day was the beginning of something called Hell Week.
"The pledges were taken from their rooms by active members (of the fraternity) and assembled in a parking lot. They were put in the trunks of cars, three at a time. Inside the trunks were a pint of Jack Daniels each, a six-pack of beer and a mixture of wine. They were told they must consume that alcohol before they would be released."
The experience was even more dangerous because it took place in February, and none of the pledges was wearing a coat. Several other students ended up in the hospital; one slipped into an alcoholic coma, although Chuck's was the only death.
The tragedy, and the inadequate investigation which followed, spurred Stevens to channel her grief into the creation of a non-profit organization known as C.H.U.C.K. (Committee to Halt Useless College Killings). "It's an attention-getting title, but that was my purpose."
She has since written countless letters to schools and student organizations, appeared on numerous television shows, spoken at over 500 North American campuses, and lobbied for anti-hazing legislation.
"At the time (that I started C.H.U.C.K.) three states had anti-hazing laws. I felt that such laws would act as a powerful deterrent, focus attention on an issue that people knew little about, and establish some accountability." Today, at least in part due to Stevens's lobbying efforts, 39 U.S. states have anti-hazing legislation, and others have legislation pending.
In some cases, more tragedy occurred before things changed. A year after Chuck's death, the governor of New York vetoed legislation which had already passed with a near unanimous vote. He was preparing to veto it again on its second passage when another student died in New York.
"An 18-year-old freshman and star athlete, pledging a fraternity, was deprived of sleep for almost three days. He was put through hours of rigorous exercise, then put into a steam room. Alcohol was involved. Suddenly, despite his excellent physical condition, his body temperature soared to 108¡, and he died of heat stroke."
The governor finally signed the legislation, under pressure from a grand jury prosecuting the case.
According to statistics kept by C.H.U.C.K., 66 men have died in hazing-related incidents since 1978. In her lectures, Stevens appeals to fraternity ideals to discourage hazing.
"When I think of the word fraternity or sorority, I think of words like honour, trust, friendship, brotherhood, and leadership. The word hazing just doesn't fit. To me, it contradicts everything you stand for," she told her audience, made up mostly of fraternity and sorority members.
Stevens, a member of the Order of Omega and Alpha Phi International Women's Fraternity, added, "No one can demean, degrade or intimidate respect out of an incoming member--that respect has to be earned."
She was careful to emphasize that McGill does not have a problem with hazing. "I'm here because you have chosen to focus on an issue which concerns us all, and which has brought so much heartbreak. So often, I'm invited to a campus after there has been a tragedy; I applaud you for dealing with this issue in a proactive way, and I'm proud to be here."
Fraternity members at the lecture confirmed that McGill's fraternities and sororities do not tolerate hazing.
"We have a strict policy. Any members engaged in hazing will be kicked out of the organization," said Noah Godfrey of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the group which organized the event. "To my knowledge, most or all other fraternities on campus have a similar policy." There are approximately 15 fraternities and sororities at McGill.
"There are many alternatives to hazing," said Michael Kotler, president of the Inter Greek Letter Council, a student group made up mostly of fraternity and sorority members. "New members may be required to organize parties or charity events, something challenging that doesn't infringe on their rights."