I have been following, with some interest, the story of Robert Champion, the Florida A&M University (FAMU) drum major who was beaten to death on a charter bus by fellow band members
His death was ruled a homicide by medical examiners, who found bruising on his chest, arms, abdomen, and back. He suffered internal bleeding and shock. His injuries – injuries caused by the hands of (marching) band members – were fatal.
Mr. Champion’s death has been stated as the product of hazing at FAMU. He was beaten to death while he was attempting to win the respect of his peers. This tragedy, says the media, exposes the general culture of hazing at FAMU, and demonstrates just how ugly and dangerous it is.
And then. Florida State Attorney said, “I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying. It’s bullying with a tradition, a tradition that we cannot bear in America.”
When I was in middle school, I was bullied. I was threatened. I was verbally harassed by a fellow student who made me not want to change my clothes for gym class. I have experienced (and survived) bullying. I get the anguish that goes along with bullying, and I am completely sympathetic to the kids who have been seriously bullied to the point where they feel the only way out is to hurt themselves. I am appalled by bullying, and I fear the escalation of bullying that the internet and Facebook allows.
I have also experienced hazing, to a degree. I was in the marching band in high school, and at band camp, upperclassmen were given authority to dress us up funny, or make us wear signs, or humiliate us in various ways. I believe I was made to wear a pair of tighty-whiteys over my clothes for a day wearing a sign that said… something? I don’t remember. I have never been physically abused as a part of a hazing ritual, but I nonetheless feel that any hazing is an inappropriate way to facilitate group loyalty and cohesion.
I remember at time when hazing got a lot of attention, because hazing often goes too far. People get hurt. People get raped. People get killed. So hazing was the crime du jour.
These days, bullying is the crime du jour. Hazing is not bad enough on its own. Now hazing has to be bullying. Because bullying often goes too far. People get hurt, and people die. This makes bullying the crime du jour.
So now, I want to call “Bullshit.” When a student is beaten to death, it may be a hazing ritual gone to far, but it is also assault, battery, and murder. When a student is hazed, it is not bullying. It is hazing.
Bullying and hazing are bad enough in their own right. But there comes a point where hazing is not longer hazing and bullying is no longer bullying. Someone has decided that bullying is the worst possible offense that a person can commit, and I am here to say: IT IS NOT! Bullying sucks. Being bullied sucks. But bullying to the extent of bodily harm and/or suicide is harassment.
Likewise, hazing sucks. When hazing involved one student being beaten to death by 13 others, it is assault. It is murder.
Hazing and bullying are both problematic in their own right. But naming hazing bullying does not actually get to the heart of the problem. The fundamental problem is violence – direct and intentional violence – against a fellow human being. Whatever we call it, Robert Champion is still dead, and it is still – and will always be – a useless tragedy.