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Are the accusations at Howard on par with the hazing tragedies of the past? No, but they still matter.
Written by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
Earlier this week the Washington City Paper reported that two Howard University seniors had filed a lawsuit against Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. claiming that their human rights had been violated. Furthermore, the suit named the school itself as a defendant, noting that the prestigious university had failed to protect students who refused to accept hazing at the hands of the sorority.
If you're expecting tales of psychological torment—something similar to Mean Girls on steroids, but on a college campus—you'll find that. But if you're assuming horrific tales of physical abuse where these young women were placed in potentially dangerous situations, you'll find nothing of the sort.
In the first of two articles by the City Paper, it's mentioned that both girls were invited to "Ivy Day," an interest meeting of sorts held by the AKA sorority during the spring semester of 2010. This was when both girls were just freshmen, during a time when the suit claims that official pledging on Howard's campus had been suspended due to prior cases of hazing. Following the initial meeting, they claim that they were subject to "dehumanizing" levels of hazing.
To be specific, every girl who attended the orientation was instructed not to wear the sorority's signature colors of pink and green, or any colors that can be blended to create pink and green. The group of pledges was also barred from wearing white pearls, another AKA staple. Moreover, the suit claims that pledges were addressed as "weak b******," humiliated by members of the sorority, and socially exiled. Specifically, they were prohibited from talking to non-sorority members on campus.
If none of this sounds egregious, it's because it's common practice for most pledges.
If none of this sounds egregious, it's because it's common practice for most pledges.
Like all sororities and fraternities, Alpha Kappa Alpha has a strict no-hazing policy. In the event that hopefuls participate in a pre-pledging "underground" process, the organization will not acknowledge any accusations of hazing in an attempt to be absolved of responsibility. Any such activity would be deemed unofficial, and therefore not associated with the organization. The message is that you're on your own if you choose to go off the grid, and that's what appears to have happened here.
At one point, a mother of one of the plaintiffs—who is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha—penned a complaint to the sorority about their treatment following orientation meetings in 2010 and 2011. She also said that another girl suffered a nervous breakdown and had to leave school as a result. In a follow-up, the City Paper highlighted some of the responsibilities the plaintiff's mother claims the girls were assigned:
Pick up sorority members from the airport.
Buy alcohol for Howard's Founders Week.
Use different doors than full-fledged sisters.
Not eat in the Punch Out, a Howard hangout.
Line up and address sisters by their sister's full names.
Once again, these requirements seem right in line with the many tasks that prospective members are expected to complete in order to join. If any girls willingly submit to this as part of an unofficial pledge group, it's on them. But, as always, there's more. The initial complaint (which is being used as evidence in the case) detailed additional treatment that these eager young women were subjected to during orientations:
Interested women were commanded to contact random sorors daily at a certain hour on the minute, and if they failed to do so, the women would be forced to suffer and endure verbal abuse or be disqualified from [membership process] ab initio
Interested women were told to attend social events under the guise of getting to know other Greek letter organization members, only to be heckled, harangued and humiliated by sorors in front of their peers;
Interested women were mentally tormented by sorors; for example some were instructed by sorors to do something random or silly, only to be immediately berated and castigated in front of other sorors for doing as they were instructed to do
Interested women were restricted from speaking with friends on the college campus and warned not to report abuses.
Following the complaint, both plaintiffs say they were given the cold shoulder by the sorority. To be more explicit, they were blackballed and branded as "snitches." While a harsh reality, this response is far from unexpected. They weren't singled out, as all AKA hopefuls faced the same rigors during the process. It's all part of the game, and it was one they chose to play. Considering the abuse sorority and fraternity members of generations past have been subject to, many would scoff at the mostly innocuous allegations.
Both plaintiffs are "legacies," meaning their mothers are also members of the sorority. When neither girl was granted membership into the sorority, they applied again. They claim that they were denied and informed that a cap had been placed on the number of new members that could be accepted.
For their alleged hardships, both plaintiffs seek an unspecified amount of money in damages, and want the court to freeze the sorority's pledging process until the case is ironed out. Naturally, Alpha Kappa Alpha filed an opposing motion, saying that both plaintiffs could reapply for membership to graduate chapters.
Hazing has become increasingly problematic for colleges and universities in recent years. More serious cases have made national headlines, for example, the death of Florida A&M student Robert Champion. In November 2011, the 26-year-old drum major collapsed and died following what prosecutors call a savage beating that was part of routine hazing.
The beating took place on a bus that was parked in a hotel parking lot following FAMU and rival Bethune-Cookman's annual football game. Local authorities say Champion died of internal bleeding, and suffered bruises to his back, chest, arms, and shoulder. According to witnesses, Champion was vomiting before he was found on the bus, unresponsive. Just as the Howard University story was making headlines, it was announced that charges for the defendants in the Champion case were upgraded to manslaughter by a new prosecutor.
FAMU is working to combat hazing, and this incident doesn't even involve a Divine 9 organization—Champion's death allegedly came at the hands of the famous Marching 100 band, which has since been suspended by the university. This incident, which culminated with the senseless death of a young man, should go to trial. By comparison, it almost makes the story out of D.C. seem trivial.
The allegations of hazing at Howard appear to be born only of disappointment.
By contrast, it becomes clear that the allegations of hazing at Howard appear to be born only of disappointment. There's the disappointment of two young women who, despite working to achieve their goal, are still not members of Alpha Kappa Alpha. Adding to that is the disappointment of a mother whose daughter still has not joined the organization she herself is a member of.
The plaintiff's mother who complained to the organization may have been playing the role of protector, but in reality, she opened both women up to ridicule. Nobody can protect them now that the story has gone public, as their names and photos have been published by various outlets. Each now bears a scarlet "S" on her chest thanks to their revelation of the sorority's practices. Now that everyone knows who they are, they're open to torture from not only members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, but the entire campus. Assuming they are graduating seniors, they will spend their final semester with a much heavier burden than their senior thesis alone.
For that reason, their names have been omitted from this piece, despite the information being public. Based on the facts that have been presented, it doesn't seem their treatment merits the attention of a federal court. Still, these women don't deserve to be treated as pariah's on Howard's campus, even if their decision to take legal action has left them vulnerable to further bullying. Regardless of the outcome of this case, this will now be the first thing that potential employers will learn about when researching these young women who are about to graduate. Why were they not better protected by the news outlets reporting their story?
Why were these young women not better protected by the news outlets reporting their story?
There's a reason why hazing is prohibited by Greek organizations, and why ambitious potential members are urged not to participate in rogue activities. Reputations and lives can be placed at risk, and there's still no guarantee of membership. Everyone must remember that these incidents involve young people nearing the end of their formative years. If these stories reach the media, it's their responsibility to protect victims from further embarrassment whenever possible, lest those reporting on torment become the tormentors.
RELATED: 10 Horrible Tales of College Hazing