Archive for February, 2012

Student Speaks Out in Favor of Improved Protection for LGBTQ Rattlers

February 21, 2012

Hats off to FAMU student Ciara Taylor for recording this video eloquently speaking in favor of better protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer members of the FAMU community.

Ciara is urging her classmates to vote in favor of a referendum on the ballot in student elections Tuesday to add language protecting the LGBTQ community under FAMU’s non-discrimination policies. (This has been a hot topic on campus since the tragic death of Robert Champion, who was gay.) Ciara has also urged university-level trustees to take action on this issue.

Good luck, Ciara! You’re absolutely right. This group deserves protection at FAMU as much as any other.

[UPDATE: The ballot measure passed! Congrats to Ciara and the other students who supported this effort to stick up for one another!]


New “FAMU Headlines” Widget

February 15, 2012

You may have noticed, we don’t focus a lot on breaking news in our posts here. We prefer to focus on hashing out solutions and identifying the contributing factors that recur again and again in people’s personal hazing experiences.

There are a number of reasons for this focus, chief among them the presence of a lot of full-time professional journalists, most of them based in Florida, who do a much better job than we could in covering breaking news. They also sometimes produce great narratives of their own, as in this recent can’t-miss feature by the Orlando Sentinel’s Jeff Kunerth and Denise-Marie Balona detailing the history of hazing within the Marching 100.

We’d much rather fulfill some need that’s not currently being filled by the full-time press corp. That said, we do realize a lot of their work may be of interest to our readers.

With that in mind, we’ve added a “FAMU Headlines” widget to the lefthand column of our site. (Speaking of the layout in a large-sized browser window here. If you’re viewing the site on a smartphone, you may need to scroll all the way to the bottom of your screen to see the widget.) From here on, that widget will be updated continuously by Google News with headlines from around the Web about Florida A&M, hazing-related or not. Hoping it will be another handy tool for folks who want to keep up with the school.

A Few Anti-Hazing Ideas of My Own

February 13, 2012

By Peter McKay | FAMU ’97 | Email

Since this blog launched a few months back, Rattlers have responded with a bunch of great anti-hazing ideas, sent via submissions to our hazing database, comments on posts, and even the occasional direct email.

This really excites me, since I believe we need some new approaches to solve the hazing problem. I don’t believe that just because some of the things we’ve tried in the past have failed, that means the task can never be accomplished. As I see it, we’ve just discovered a bunch of ways that don’t work, so we need to move past those to get to new ones that do.

In that spirit, here are a few ideas of my own:

Clarify what “zero tolerance” means. From the hazing stories that have surfaced lately, it seems the university responds to hazing incidents primarily through suspensions. Expulsions seem exceedingly rare, and I haven’t come across a case yet where someone was prosecuted criminally at the behest of the university. If an individual victim presses a case, maybe. But you don’t see the university pushing for it much.

That needs to change. Any incident that involves violence or another obvious crime, such as destruction or theft of property, needs to be reported to the police and pursued as far as possible as a criminal matter, not just solved administratively.

For organizations, it should be “one strike and you’re out.” I’ve said before that I believe the Marching 100 should be suspended for at least four years, maybe longer, in order to really clean house following the Robert Champion tragedy. That seems fair and consistent with the university’s existing policies, including its handling of previous hazing incidents within organizations like Kappa Alpha Psi. If that frat got a lengthy ban for seriously injuring a pledge, then the band certainly has to be shut down for awhile for killing someone.

For future incidents, I think the penalty should be even stronger. If an organization is shown to haze violently, it should be banned permanently from FAMU’s campus. Period.

I realize that sounds harsh, but you know what, the orgs at the core of the hazing problem already have two strikes on them. The band and the Greek-letter orgs have already had numerous incidents over the years, so they should already be far along in dealing with hazing internally. If they can’t finish the job now, then time’s up.

The bigger idea at work here is that the university exists for learning first and foremost. All this other stuff is extracurricular — literally “outside the curriculum.” As in, nice to have but ultimately expendable if necessary. These orgs need to get that message, right up to the national level of leadership for those orgs that have such structures.

The kids seem to like this Internet thing. Use it. If nothing else, this site has provided proof of concept that hazing victims and witnesses will speak up if given an online tool that allows anonymous responses. As notoriously difficult as it is to get people to break the code of silence, we’ve already gotten a few dozen detailed incident reports, working as an unofficial organization with zero budget and a webmaster who’s a thousand-plus miles from Tallahassee.

Imagine what the university itself could learn if it took a similar approach.

The crucial thing that online reporting does is that it lowers people’s inhibitions, which can be a good thing. Some victims who might be hesitant to pick up a phone and dial an authority figure, or walk into one’s office in person, might instead be willing to fill out a form from the relative safety of sitting at home in front of a keyboard. Use that to your advantage.

In conjunction with better online data collection, the university should also…

Take a more community-oriented approach to ferreting out hazing abuses. The current system is basically designed to ferret out one hazing case at a time in its particulars. As in: “John got hazed in X organization by Joe, Larry, and Moe, and such-and-such is what we should do about it.”

There’s nothing wrong with that sort of followup, of course. If John wants to come forward and file such a complaint, then he should definitely have options to do so. But that shouldn’t be the minimum bar to clear for the university to take any action at all against hazing.

What anonymized online data collection would allow the university to do is collect a larger number of signals about where hazing abuses lie and then act more preventively, even if each signal has less detail about each individual case.

If, for instance, you get 10 anonymous reports on the same frat, it might be a good idea to call all the members of that frat into a meeting and ask what the heck is going on. Mind you, this wouldn’t be the same as some of the generic anti-hazing briefings that the university now has to inform orgs of FAMU policy, as if nothing is wrong to begin with. I’m talking about putting people on notice about specifics, confronting them with what you’ve got, and going from there.

A conversation of this sort will put much greater fear in the hearts of hazers, and it may encourage some of the pledges to come forward later as well. That’s another lesson we’ve learned about this blog: When one person talks openly about his or her brush with hazing, it often encourages others to do so, some of them in even greater detail.

Band Hazing: The Part of William P. Foster’s Legacy We Prefer to Ignore

February 6, 2012

By Peter McKay | FAMU ’97 | Email

A little while back, I told Time magazine’s Tim Padgett that I believe comparing FAMU’s band scandal to Penn State’s mishandling of child molestation is more than fair to FAMU. The scandals share two out of three characteristics that I think make for a fair comparison. On the third — the question of whether someone died as a result of campus misconduct — FAMU actually fares worse than Penn State.

I’ve been saying that purely in the sense of ascribing moral responsibility to institutions as a whole. But the more I think about it, I’d like to add one caveat: If we want to run with the FAMU-Penn State comparison for the sake of constructing a human narrative, I think there is one crucial detail that demands some clarification.

Who’s the Joe Paterno figure at FAMU?

Several journalists who have written about FAMU recently have defaulted to Julian White as the answer. This is certainly fair enough on the surface. He’s the bungling bandmaster left holding the bag when Robert Champion died after the 2011 Florida Classic. As the leader of the Marching 100 since 1998, he’s definitely been a powerful fixture on campus.

But if you want to answer the question in terms of the Marching 100’s full history, who had the most monumental tenure with the organization, and how hazing culture took root in the first place, the better Paterno stand-in is the 100’s founding bandmaster William P. Foster. He was bandmaster from 1946 to 1998 — an astonishing 52-year stretch that’s more than triple the length of White’s tenure. He mentored Dr. White and pretty much everyone else on staff for years, and he launched essentially all the band’s defining traditions, including weak-kneed response to hazing abuses.

Like Paterno at this point, it’s also sadly true that we’re still dealing with the fallout of Dr. Foster’s oversights even though the man himself is no longer with us. He passed away in August 2010.

For a lot of Rattlers, I realize his death is still a pretty recent memory. Dr. Foster is not yet such a distant historical figure that we can discuss his legacy with real detachment, and believe me, I hate to speak ill of people who aren’t here to defend themselves.

That said, the truth is the truth. Remember, this blog from the beginning has concerned itself with long-term hazing culture, how it’s transferred across generations, and how to break the continuity. You simply can’t eliminate hazing in the present day without confronting the past. By that standard, we can’t overlook Dr. Foster’s legacy regarding hazing in the Marching 100.

The topic is on my mind this week because of a lengthy comment by Reginald K. Wilkes, who was a Marching 100 member in the early 1980s. He thoughtfully responded to a recent post by ’90s-era alum Tracy Harmon about her experience with sorority hazing at FAMU with a frighteningly detailed description of his own experience within the band. It includes not only violence by Reginald’s antagonists but also a certain measure of the same stuff in self-defense by Reginald and his roommate who didn’t want to be hazed.

Reginald’s narrative includes this very damning passage:

I know personally of a student that was beaten with pipes, and bricks, kicked up the hill on the patch with combat boots at late night section rehearsals, after Dr. Foster gave the words. “Upperclassmen do what you must”, when the lights went down on the patch, freshmen ran for their lives to Sampson Hall and Paddyfoote Dorms.

I have to say, this story is an amped-up version of a theme that’s recurred in my own conversations with several band members over the years, to the extent that I can get Rattler friends and acquaintances to open up at all about the touchy topic of band hazing. When pressed, they tend not to describe Dr. Foster as particularly diligent about policing hazing within the band. (Dr. White, who was the longtime assistant to Dr. Foster before taking over, also doesn’t tend to come out like a gem, his recent one-man PR campaign notwithstanding. My sense is that both these guys practiced the fine bureaucratic art of plausible deniability for a long time.)

I should add: My own roommate at FAMU and current business partner, Lawrence Patrick, was assaulted by his bandmates in 1994 as a member of the Marching 100’s drumline. Like Reginald, Lawrence didn’t want to subject himself to ritualized hazing, which led to what you might describe as a more “freelance” sort of violence. Lawrence complained and came away highly unsatisfied with the response by both Dr. Foster and his then-assistant Dr. White.

I’ve been encouraging Lawrence to write something for the blog so you can hear the full details in his own words, and I think we may still get him to do it yet. If that day comes, you’re in for another doozie of an anecdote, believe me.