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Florida law on hazing gets test

Five students from FAMU go on trial this week, charged with beating several greek pledges. It is the first case since the state banned hazing.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published September 10, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Marcus Jones walked into his parents' Georgia home so bruised and battered his jeans were soaked through with blood.

His left eardrum was ruptured, his face tender from what he said were repeated slaps and punches.

Jones, 19, told his father the attackers were his would-be "brothers" - five members of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity chapter at Florida A&M University, where Jones was a sophomore.

According to authorities, Jones was one of several FAMU students severely beaten over four days in February. It was part of their initiation into Kappa Alpha Psi, Jones said.

This week, the five fraternity members who have been charged go to court in a trial that could have major ramifications for fraternities, sororities and other high school and college groups across the state.

The case against Michael Morton, Brian Bowman, Cory Gray, Marcus Hughes and Jason Harris is the first since Florida lawmakers banned hazing in high schools and colleges last year, making it a third-degree felony when serious injury or death results.

At least 43 other states have antihazing statutes, but few are as stiff as Florida's. State Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, pushed the legislation following the hazing death of a University of Miami student in 2001.

"With this law, it's no longer, 'Don't do it because it isn't right,' " Hasner said. "It's, 'Don't do it because it's illegal.' By making this a crime and by making the penalties tougher, that message will get through."

Attorneys for the five suspects did not respond to interview requests.

But FAMU administrators already have suspended the young men from classes and banned the fraternity chapter from campus until 2013.

If a jury finds the students guilty, their fate could be worse - up to five years in prison.

"You get convicted of a felony and that affects your entire life," said Dawn Whitehurst of Tallahassee, the attorney for the Jones family.

"That's why this case is important. The message has got to get through somehow, because people are losing their lives and getting seriously injured. I mean, when will we finally get it?"

* * *

For years, colleges and national fraternities treated hazing as an administrative matter.

Universities set up programs to educate students about its dangers. Greek organizations signed national bans against the practice.

Still, every few years, a hazing case made headlines: a sorority at the University of South Florida that beat pledges with paddles; a University of Florida fraternity that threw garbage at pledges and forced them to drink nearly lethal amounts of alcohol.

When students were injured from hazing, university officials typically suspended or expelled the students responsible.

But prosecutors rarely pursued criminal charges because they knew the defense would be that the victim consented to abuse in return for group membership, said Hasner, an attorney and longtime Phi Delta Theta fraternity member.

Then came the death of UM student Chad Meredith.

An 18-year-old freshman from Indiana, Meredith died in 2001 while trying to swim across Lake Osceola with Kappa Sigma fraternity president Travis Montgomery and fraternity officer David May. Meredith drank before getting into the lake.

Police never filed charges. But in February 2004, a civil jury in Miami-Dade County concluded that Montgomery and May acted as fraternity members when they pressured Meredith to swim across the lake and then left him as he yelled for help.

Jurors ordered the Kappa Sigma brothers to pay Meredith's parents more than $12-million.

A year later, Hasner persuaded fellow lawmakers to support antihazing legislation in Meredith's honor. The statute makes clear that a victim's consent to the violence "is not a defense to the charge of hazing."

"I believe in the legitimate goals and objectives of greek organizations," Hasner said. "But you do not need to participate in dangerous hazing activities to achieve those legitimate goals."

* * *

University hazing dates back to at least the 15th century, when students in Germany forced freshmen to do menial tasks like carrying older students' books and pens, according to Walter Kimbrough, an expert in fraternity and sorority histories.

The idea was that first-year students must earn the right to be part of a group, Kimbrough said.

By the 1920s, most colleges had banned the hazing of freshmen.

"But it doesn't just go away," said Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Arkansas. "It ends up in fraternities and sororities."

Today, hazing in white greek organizations typically centers around alcohol. Six years ago, the Florida State University chapter of Sigma Alpha Theta was suspended for forcing pledges to drink until they vomited.

Black greek groups that engage in hazing emphasize physical, militaristic rituals, said Kimbrough, author of Black Greek 101: the Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities.

Black fraternities force pledges to walk in step like soldiers. They beat them with canes. They paddle them. They brand them.

And it's not just "bad kids" engaging in this dangerous, abusive behavior, said Dr. Susan Lipkins, a child psychologist in New York who wrote the book Preventing Hazing.

"You can have kids with good moral values, but they walk into this hazing and they drop it," Lipkins said. "The tradition in a fraternity is to maintain the hierarchy. So new kids come in, and they want to please the members who have been there for a while."

Officially, hazing in black fraternities ended in 1990 when the National Pan-Hellenic Council banned traditional pledging in the nine sororities and fraternities it governs.

But Kimbrough said the national ban just prompted some chapters to hide their hazing even more than before.

Investigators in the FAMU case say Jones and other pledges were beaten repeatedly over several nights with wooden canes.

"It wasn't just Marcus, but it seemed like Marcus got the worst of it," said Whitehurst, Jones' attorney.

Jones told his father that fraternity members warned pledges not to seek medical attention.

But Jones was losing a lot of blood. He knew he needed help. He drove home to Decatur, Ga. His parents saw his blood-soaked jeans and rushed him to an emergency room.

Injuries to his buttocks required more than two dozen stitches and a drainage tube. Doctors told him his left eardrum was ruptured, Whitehurst said.

His father, Mark Jones, a master sergeant with the Army who pledged Kappa Alpha Psi as a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the Tallahassee Democrat earlier this year that he came forward because his son did not want to.

"He didn't blow the whistle," Mark Jones said. "I did."

Marcus Jones still hasn't returned to FAMU.

"He's still trying to heal and put his life together and see where he wants to go," Whitehurst said. "It was very traumatic for him.

"He does not want to be in the center of all this attention. I don't know if it's really hit him, the importance of this case."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.

[Last modified September 10, 2006, 00:59:34]


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