What a Criminal Defense Attorney Tells His Children About Pledging a Fraternity or Sorority

On many campuses, college culture is synonymous with Greek life. Every year students attend rush events hoping to be picked to pledge a fraternity or sorority both to be part of a social group, and to enjoy what is usually an active party scene. With the spring semester now in full swing, many students are deciding when/if to pledge. And while there may be many benefits to joining one of these on campus organizations, there is one very dangerous obstacle that often stands in the way of a pledge becoming a member of the organization; hazing.

Usually acceptance into a fraternity or sorority entails engaging in a series of mandatory tasks or exercises imposed by upperclassmen. Many of these activities are completely harmless, such as learning to recite the Greek alphabet, memorizing the organization’s history, interviewing current members, or participating in philanthropic events. However sometimes the activities are taken too far. The problem starts when, to gain acceptance to the group, students are put through any number of ordeals that can be classified as hazing violations.

What are Hazing Violations?

Hazing is defined as; the imposition of strenuous, often humiliating, tasks as part of a program of rigorous physical training and initiation. Placing a group of 19-21 year olds in charge of imposing strenuous and humiliating tasks upon lowerclassmen does not inspire much confidence, especially when it comes to safety. The problem only gets worse when you realize that most hazing involves alcohol and drug use, both by the members doing the hazing and the pledges acting on their orders.

It’s common knowledge that hazing often involves binge drinking. There have been plenty of news stories where the combination of pledging and alcohol consumption has gone seriously wrong, causing accidents, injuries, hospitalization, and in some cases death. In February of last year college sophomore Timothy Piazza made major headlines when he died from falling down a flight of stairs and suffering serious internal injuries after being forced to drink lethal amounts of alcohol during hazing at a party.

Even on college campuses that don’t have fraternities or sororities students can still be at risk as this behavior can occur on athletic teams, or within other student organizations.

It’s almost impossible to completely avoid risk when pledging, and that’s why it’s so important to have a discussion with your kids about the potential consequences involved before you send them off to school on their own. At least that way they don’t go into the situation blind, but have some knowledge of what to expect and how to stay safe and out of trouble.

Why pledge in the first place?

It may seem obvious to us now that if someone tells you to do something you don’t want to do, you just say no. But when you’re a college student new to campus it’s very easy to succumb to the pressure of wanting to be part of a group, and doing whatever it takes to make that happen.

When I was in college I pledged a fraternity. I didn’t plan on it, and it’s not something I ever discussed with my parents. But 3 weeks into my freshman year, I was given a bid and became a pledge. I participated in plenty of nonsense, and thankfully most of it was pretty tame. But we also participated in a number of unsafe activities, in which one wrong step could have caused serious harm to one of us.

The reason I participated is the same reason most kids today do, acceptance. Acceptance by this large group of upperclassmen that want you to be part of their group. Acceptance by the other students that you are pledging with. And as ridiculous at it may be, you can’t help but develop strong bonds with the other people who are going through it with you.

In college it’s an honor to be part of a fraternity or sorority. It means you belong to a brother or sisterhood, that you’re not alone on campus. You had to earn your way into that group by demonstrating your worthiness during pledging, making you special. You now have an automatic invitation to a lot of fun parties, and a host of other students you call friends because of your membership. All of these are desirable things to many freshmen who find themselves on their own for the first time.

The problem is when the desire to be part of the group causes kids to do reckless things that can have long term consequences.

What schools are doing to avoid the occurrence of hazing violations

While the obvious answer may seem like banning all Greek life from campus, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. Instead, colleges have begun imposing prerequisites to pledging, and policies that are supposed to protect new students to be the receiving end of hazing violations. These include:

  • GPA minimums
  • The “New member” process can only be a certain designated time
  • Participating in a hazing education course
  • No Hazing
  • No drinking when pledges present

The challenge with the prerequisites is enforcement. It’s one thing for a college to declare “no hazing” but there’s little way for them to enforce this policy unless they are monitoring students 24/7.
In certain cases colleges are also taking more serious steps to punish fraternities and sororities for serious misconduct and hazing violations. At my alma mater alone (SUNY Albany) out of 21 fraternities on campus, two have been derecognized, two had their charters revoked, five are currently suspended, and four are on probation, meaning only one third of the 21 fraternities are actually in good standing with the school.

As of September of this year Monmouth University in New Jersey suspended all of its fraternities and sororities because of hazing violations.

If your kids are planning on pledging

Just as it’s unrealistic to think that schools are going to ban all fraternities/sororities anytime soon, it’s also unrealistic to think that your kids are not going to participate, or get hazed. That’s the reason why having a conversation with them about what to expect is crucial.

Make sure they know their limits. As I mentioned before, not all pledging is bad; some of the acts students have to do are harmless. However it’s critical that your kids recognize the difference between harmless pledging, and the type of activities that could cause them either physical harm, or serious repercussions with the school. They should be aware of circumstances that might put them in danger or being asked to consume alcohol to an unreasonable degree. That way at least if they are going to pledge, they can have a positive social experience without getting themselves hurt.

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