Smarter Pledging, Not Prohibition, is the Key to Ending Hazing Danger at HBCUs

Most crimes have a perpetrator and a victim; one party who decides to harm another physically, mentally, financially or socially, and another who is harmed without consent and against their will.

Hazing is typically not one of those crimes. Two parties agree to a form of engagement that can range from childish ribbing to murder. The challenge for college campuses; how do institutions insure themselves against this agreement between two students who typically aren’t mature enough to understand the range of engagement, how its definitions impact different people in different ways, and how quickly permanent harm can be caused through unintentional means and methods?

Bowie State University is the latest to confront this challenge. HBCU Gameday reports that its marching band has been suspended for “serious allegations of hazing.” Its members and leadership will be investigated, they won’t appear at games or university events, and the whole campus will swirl with rumors and defensiveness about the action against the Symphony of Soul.

Bowie State’s hazing issue follows similar claims made at Wiley College earlier this semester, which suspended its all of its campus-based Greek organizations.

Students in marching bands, fraternities, and sororities, and the adults who love to pledge haze them or who endorse pledging hazing as a method of building organizational function and tradition will never stop. Schools like West Virginia University are Petrie dishes for what happens when leaders wash their hands of the challenges at large and outright ban organizations from campus.

So HBCUs are in a unique position. They have to address hazing in a way which protects their campuses from legal liability and public safety concerns while maintaining traditions with significant outcomes on student recruitment and retention, philanthropy, and executive leadership.

There are two ways to address the challenge. The first is to ban organizations for egregious or chronic violations of policy. The other is to work with these groups to create intake and membership policy which enhance the likelihood that students who will inevitably sign up to haze and to be hazed will do so without being caught.

HBCUs do an effective job of implementing zero-tolerance policies when issues are reported. It is when faculty and staff members independently try to solve hazing issues and “fix them” outside of reporting presidents, vice presidents and police officials, it muddies the implementation process and increases liability.

HBCUs and most colleges at large have erred by not being clarifying the definition of ‘zero tolerance.’ Zero tolerance does not mean prohibition; it means that the campus will not tolerate when bad actions happen, and bad actors will be removed and prosecuted within due process.

Most laws and regulations in this country aren’t in place to outright prohibit bad behavior; they are in place to punish those who violate the law in extreme ways. If we wanted to stop drunk driving, we would make laws which would prohibit the sale of alcohol at stores, bars, and events where people have to drive to have drinks and have to drive away once they are finished drinking.

Those laws would destroy entrepreneurialism and take away the freedom of choice for those who can drink and not break traffic laws or endanger other drivers. So state and federal governments only make laws to severely punish those sellers and consumers who do not responsibly engage in the ecosystem of alcohol sale and consumption.

And so it has to go for HBCUs. Most officials who give the line of wanting to or being capable of eliminating hazing from campus know they are delivering a promise that is impossible to keep; a promise no different from telling faculty that they can prevent a student from cursing them out in class or telling students that sexual assault is preventable anywhere, anytime on our campuses.

No person, organization or policy guide can stop a person from committing hate speech, rape, theft, plagiarism, battery, public intoxication, or pledging; all schools can do is put systems in place to fairly and quickly process claims and dispense remedies quickly and discreetly within federal laws protecting student privacy and promoting public disclosure.

Schools can throw groups off of campus, but what does campus life look like without clubs and organizations removed for hazing, or marching bands? An institutional alternative may be aligning with regional and national offices to determine how intake guidelines can be changed to skew students towards better decision making, even in breaking the rules.

Every campus is not the same; in some places, higher GPA standards would create cultures where students would either reject hazing as an underground intake tradition or that they would do it in such a way which doesn’t promote brutality in varying forms from varying people who may or may not be members of the campus community.

In other places, sporadic and mandatory meetings may force students into alternative means and times for pledging in order to avoid falling asleep or showing physical injuries in front of campus officials and mandated reporters.

No one can stop hazing, and it is far more controversial to say that it can be stopped than it is to create policies where smarter students who choose to haze and be hazed do so within confines of common sense and human decency. No one wants to be sued or to go to jail for pledging, but if we really want to avoid the unavoidable, then the key is to follow what is clear from laws and standards surrounding drinking culture.

Where prohibition has failed, perhaps moderation may be the key.