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Brutal Incidents Shine Light On Band Hazing Culture


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The death of 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion, Jr. continues to reverberate not just at Florida A&M and other historically black colleges but at schools nationwide. His death exposed a culture that many of us know nothing about, but it's a problem that band directors and school administrators have had to deal with for many years.

In 2009, the marching band at Jackson State University made headlines after 45 members were suspended after an alleged hazing incident. Similar questions arose a few years ago at the University of Wisconsin. More on both in a moment, but tell us, if you're in a school band, how does this play out at your school? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, many consider the holidays a barren period for the job search. In fact, we're going to talking instead to the chief advisor to the prime minister of Turkey, which is playing a key role in Syria and Iraq and the future of the Middle East, so stay tuned for that. But first, band hazing.

And let's begin with a caller, and we'll begin with Adrian, who's calling us from Portland, Oregon.

ADRIAN: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: And you're in a school band?

ADRIAN: I was in a school band a long time ago, 1974, and we traditionally had a sort of official hazing that would happen that was fairly harmless. And my freshman year, it was canceled because one of the other students called home, and their parents complained.

So unfortunately there was an unofficial hazing that wound up with a kid getting a concussion, by being thrown against a concrete block.

CONAN: Unofficial hazing; is this sort of, you know, an induction into the band?

ADRIAN: Yeah, it's all the freshmen at band camp would go through this.


ADRIAN: Why - that's a great question. It was supposed to instill a bit of a camaraderie that we would all go through that, and we knew that the previous years had all gone through it. And like I said, the one that was sort of official, which would have included some adults being there, was a bunch of silly pranks. And - but once that was actually canceled, then, you know, some seniors took it under their - took the initiative and physically, you know, made everybody line up.

And one guy said he wouldn't do it, and it turned into a fight, and it was pretty horrendous.

CONAN: So if the goal was camaraderie, it should - it doesn't seem like it worked.

ADRIAN: No, it didn't work at all. And the kid who called home wasn't the one that was injured, and he actually quit the band before the season even began.

CONAN: Was anything done to the schedule?

ADRIAN: No, the schedule was - I mean, there was just one student that quit the band.

CONAN: I see. And so were there any recriminations after one person suffered a concussion?

ADRIAN: Yeah, you know, back then not so much. They said, you know, kids are kids, and unfortunately a guy got hurt, and there was a lot of talk about not having any future hazings like that. But, you know, like I said, it seems like it would have been much better if it had been a supervised hazing.

CONAN: Adrian, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

ADRIAN: All right, thank you, bye-bye.

CONAN: Joining us now is Marcus Chanay, vice president of student life at Jackson State University. He's with us from a studio at Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. Nice to have you with us today.

MARCUS CHANAY: Thank you, nice to be here.

CONAN: And you work directly with the band there at Jackson State University. I wonder, it must have seemed a little bit like deja vu after you heard about the incident at Florida A&M.

CHANAY: It was. As most folks know, we had an incident back in 2009, not to the severity of anyone being killed. There was a freshman young man that was taken to the hospital, was released to his parents, but we had 23 young men that were suspended from the university and who also lost all of their scholarships, and no one could be in the band from that incident in 2009.

CONAN: Can you give us some idea - I had not been aware the - of the way this worked not just within the band as a group but within subgroups of the band. Was that the same kind of situation you had there at Jackson...

CHANAY: That was the same type of situation. The band itself, they're just like sections. You have a trombone section, a baritone section. The incident in 2009 was involving the percussion section. And so there were freshman that were, as the caller said before, trying to come through I guess if you call it a process of being, the camaraderie, the being able to be a part of that section.

They did things that could have caused extreme harm and danger to them.

CONAN: And these involved typically - well, some of the hazing things involves going through a gauntlet.

CHANAY: I'm sorry.

CONAN: Going through a gauntlet?

CHANAY: No, no, no. One of the incidents - the incidents that occurred in 2009, these young men were paddled, and the one young man that it finally came to our attention was hit with a chair across his shoulder, which caused a severe injury to his collarbone. So this is how we found out about the incident, when the young man was taken to the hospital.

Again, an investigation was done, and we ended up losing 23 of the upperclassmen percussion section that year.

CONAN: Let's bring another caller into the conversation. Kara(ph) is on the line calling us from Paducah in Kentucky.

KARA: Oh, I just wanted to comment about high school hazing in marching bands. I was in marching band for four years. I was in the color guard. But I know that it was a really big issue that - within our brass section that they would dog pile you. And it finally got cut out one year because a kid got hurt. It wasn't like a major injury or anything, but - and then we - there were separate hazing incidents, kind of, between, like, other sections of the group and everything, like throughout the marching band.

CONAN: So each group would have its own rituals, its own traditions?

KARA: Yeah.

CONAN: That's interesting. Was everybody OK, Kara?

KARA: Yeah, everybody was fine. I mean, I look back on it today, and I think that I - that was probably the most fun I ever had in high school, being with the marching band. But, I mean, we did - there weren't problems with people getting hurt.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. I'm glad nobody got hurt. Marcus Chanay, that illustrates both sides of it. Yes, this band is a source of - well, the kids love it. It's a source of intense pride for the university, and yet somebody can get hurt.

CHANAY: That is very true, and I think the caller from Kentucky was definitely correct. A lot of the band members that come in as freshmen went through the same ritual as freshmen in high school. So for them, it's nothing that is unusual or different. They just feel that it's this part of the culture. And so to go through it, a lot of them feel that it's just something that you need to do.

CONAN: After the incident at Florida A&M, many singled out historically black college bands. Hazing does not just happen at HBCUs. In 2008, after the University of Wisconsin's band faced hazing allegations, Donna Freitag was called in to work with the band. She's now marching band liaison at the University of Wisconsin, joins us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison. Nice to have you with us today.

DONNA FREITAG: Great, thank you, it's great to be here.

CONAN: And do these problems some familiar from when you were called in to help the band there in Wisconsin?

FREITAG: Yeah, you know, quite a few of them do sound familiar. Certainly the - you know, asking students to do things as new members certainly sounds familiar. I think the severity varies from, you know, school to school and different activities. There was never a death, something, you know, that severe here at Wisconsin. But there certainly was enough that there was some concern.

And, you know, allegations of hazing was reported to the university in 2008 by a few parents of the band students, and the university certainly didn't want that to get out of hand and to grow, so hence the hiring of myself as a liaison to kind of step in and really focus on that culture and find out what was going on.

CONAN: Well, how do you change band culture? As we were hearing, this starts in high school.

FREITAG: Yeah, and that's one of the things that I realized as well in taking over this position, that this wasn't the first time that students were being hazed, that it was happening at a lower level certainly in the high school ranks. But how do you change a culture?

It's something that we believe that it's an ongoing process. It's something that will always be a part - any time you have an organization that brings in new members, that organization is at risk for hazing. So it's not something that you can sit down and have a meeting and say we're going to cut it out, and that's it. It's an ongoing process and something that takes a lot of work.

CONAN: Marcus Chanay, in your experience, yes, suspensions, maybe even some expulsions, but that's not going to solve it, is it?

CHANAY: No, and what we did, we created a task force immediately after that with the - it was an actual interim band director that actually went through that in 2009. And we created a task force that included students, faculty, staff members and alumni band members to really try to figure out why, why did you have to go through this, especially from the standpoint of paddlings or any other type of physical abuse.

And what was the reason for it? So we were trying to get down to the bottom of it, but as she just said, it's just a situation where even though you might be able to tame one group, but then you have the new group coming in, and one of the issues that we have is just trying to keep, as the young folks said, the kids say, the old heads away because they're people who are not even part of the band any longer that are still trying to bring in these 17-, 18-year-olds through a process.

CONAN: And it's not just those but the uncles, the brothers, the parents - hey, that's the way it was when I was in the band. That's the way it should be, these are great traditions.

CHANAY: Correct.

CONAN: Yeah. Email from Karen(ph) in Grand Rapids, Michigan: As a veteran of two HW, historically white, Big 10 marching bands, I was appalled to learn hazing continues to exist. It was name-calling, sexual harassment, verbal abuse and shunning. Despite all that, I'm still actively playing in three local community bands, a honk-style street band and tuba Christmas. So again, there is two sides of this, at least.

We'd like to hear from those of you who played in school bands. How did cliques and initiations play out where you went to school? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. If you watch college football teams from the comfort of your coach instead of from the bleachers, you miss what many consider the best part of the game: the halftime shows put on by the universities' marching bands.

Strutting drum majors, twirling flags, pounding drums capture the audience's attention with tightly executed formations and a wall of sound. But at some schools hours of practice is not the only thing it takes to make it in the band. Sometimes hazing plays a big part too.

Tell us, if you're in a school band, how does it play out at you school? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Marcus Chanay is vice president of student life at Jackson State University; and Donna Freitag is the marching band liaison at the University of Wisconsin. And let's go next to Sonia(ph), Sonia with us from San Antonio.


CONAN: Hi, Sonia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

SONIA: Yes, I am. I want to share an incident that took place when I was in high school band. I had just become a part of the leadership for the low brass, and what they did was they surprised us by coming to our house really early in the morning, and they dressed us all up in crazy clothes and took us out to eat in a public place.

But this experience was really positive from my point of view because it really made me feel like I was now a part of the leadership because it was something that we all had to go through in order to be a part of this. And our parents knew about it, and our band director was there.

So I'm not saying this excuses any of the violent hazing incidents, but hazing does take place that's not that – that is kind of positive.

CONAN: Donna Freitag, that sounds pretty harmless.

SONIA: Yeah, it was.

FREITAG: You know, thinking about, as Sonia said, you know, dressing up in funny clothes and going to a restaurant doesn't seem like very much. There's other things. You know, freshmen are asked to carry equipment or do some menial jobs, which, you know, just those different types of activities really don't seem like a lot.

But what happens over time is they become more dangerous. The little things - we talk about hazing - the little hazing turns into big hazing if it's not stopped early, and really, though you may not think it's that big of a deal, it really can turn out to be bad in the future.

CONAN: And does the presence (unintelligible) the band director that was there, parents were there - if adults are on hand, does that tell you, well, maybe this is OK?

FREITAG: Well, and I think that's really giving the wrong message, that that type of behavior is OK. I think that that is a concern, when adults and parents are a part of that because I think it sends a mixed message of what is OK and what isn't OK.

And as I said earlier, it's just the fact that those types of activities don't seem like much, but in a subtle way, year by year, we always try to want to up the ante just a little bit. Oh, that was OK, let's do something a little more fun, maybe, that becomes a little bit more dangerous.

CONAN: Sonia, thanks very much for the call, glad you enjoyed yourself.

SONIA: Thank you.

CONAN: There's an email just to that point from John(ph) in Aurora, Colorado. And Marcus Chanay, we'll put this to you: Do hazing incidents increase in intensity year over year? I'm thinking maybe the kids are trying to outdo those who went before them.

CHANAY: I think, you know, sometimes that is the case. But, you know, the problem is that when you're dealing with 19, 20 and 21-year-olds, who - they are really equal in peers - it just happens to be that I came to school a year or two prior to, and it's about tradition. It's about trying to hold a tradition that's supposedly been in place for years.

But as we were putting together our task force at Jackson State, a number of the older members, alumni members of the band, stated that they never got involved in any type of physical hazing. Yes, they might have had freshmen that carried their instruments or things like that, but they never got involved with physical hazing.

But I think it was very clearly stated what has happened, I think where you have students that are trying to do more than what was done in prior years or trying to do things that they seem to think that's going to make them a better band member. And it definitely tells that it doesn't make you a better band member just because you went through one thing. It has nothing to do with the way you play your instrument.

And that's one of the things that we found out through that task force. The young men that were being hazed, it was not about that they were playing wrong or doing things. They would get, you know, direction from the band directors, but it was just because they wanted them to go through a process. So it had nothing to do with their music ability at all.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Nick(ph), Nick with us from St. Louis.

NICK: Sure, thanks.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NICK: How are you doing? Yeah, I just wanted to comment. I was - I was in the band last year and they surprised me with the gauntlet they made me run through. But I don't see it as a problem. It was a very interesting - you know, they slapped me with female sexual objects as I ran through. But I would continue it. I liked it. It wasn't a bad experience.

CONAN: It was not a bad - so you didn't feel threatened in any way?

NICK: No, I didn't feel threatened. They were kind of jelly, rubbery soft, and you know, they just slapped me in the face with them as I ran through the gauntlet.

CONAN: So some humiliation, but all in good fun?

NICK: All in good fun. We put them in our mouths, and you know, it was - some were big, some were small.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Donna Freitag, it would not take much to take what he just said and say that's sexual abuse.

FREITAG: Yeah, exactly, and I just - you know, one of the points that I wanted to make, that we call it hidden harms of hazing in that you don't know what someone's background is as far as the students coming in. We've had students that maybe were sexually abused prior to coming to college, or maybe their father or mother committed suicide, or there's, you know, there could be drug issues.

And when you're asking students to do things that are a little out of the ordinary as that, you're putting them in harm's way without really knowing what their background is all about and the harm it could actually do to them psychologically without really meaning to, but you just don't know someone's background. So asking them to do that, I think, is very, very harmful.

CONAN: Email from Ron: My daughter was in a high school marching band and later college. She joined an elite private marching band one summer in the off-season. She came home with a broken pelvis. Until the recent Florida incident, it never occurred to me that her injury might have been a hazing incident. My daughter isn't talking.

And Marcus Chanay, is that part of the problem too? Is there a, you know, don't squeal culture too?

CHANAY: That is definitely part of the problem. You know, the incident back in 2009, at Jackson State, if it had not been for a young man who was underage, he was 17, and the hospital had to call his mother and father, that's how the university got involved. And because there were other incidents that we found out prior to that evening incident, we know that we would have never known what was happening.

So it is a culture that says, you know, we don't tell. And a lot of times, even for those people who do not participate, they don't tell. That's including upperclassmen or even freshmen that are there and decide that they don't want to be part of that particular part of the band. But they don't tell what they see. They don't tell what they hear. So that is definitely something that's within the culture itself.

CONAN: An important email from somebody who describes himself as Former Band Geek: At our Tennessee school, band was about the only group one could go through where there was not accepted hazing. It seems like we were all misfits in some form or fashion. I can't imagine what high school would have been like without band. My daughters can't imagine not being in the band right now. So let's not paint - tar every band with the same brush.

But Donna Freitag, I wanted to get back to that point. A lot of people say, after an incident like what happened at Florida A&M, how could the school administration not know? And I know you can't speak to their case, and there's liability questions involved here, but you look at the school administration and say, wait a minute, we have to be held responsible, no?

FREITAG: Well, you know, one of the things in looking at the size of a band, you know, three to four hundred students, and you know, that's one of the reasons why I was hired, because my focus is on the culture of hazing within the band, where you've got that many students, and with the director and administration there's other priorities that they're looking at.

You know, the band director is looking at music and performance, and that has to be their number one focus and priority, where me being hired for this position, I can really dig in and look at this and so, yes, uncover things that are happening.

One of the things that I had done early on when being hired is I met with all the freshmen individually because I had time to do that, met with all of them individually for about a half-hour, 45 minutes apiece, to find out exactly what their experience was like and to build relationships in regards to letting them know that there's somewhere they can go if they feel uncomfortable or they feel like that they've been hazed.

That first semester, I met with several rank leaders as well, meaning those are the students that are in charge of the different sections on the field. And I met with them, and there's probably about 25 or so, in a total of 190 students I met in that probably first, oh, month and a half, and really tried to uncover what was happening, and yet who else is going to have that kind of time to really figure that out?

Again, you know, I relate it to being a parent. You know, you try to teach your kids the right way and give them guidance, but you're not with them 24/7, and there's things that happen that you just don't know about.

CONAN: Let's go next to Andrew(ph). Andrew with us from Dallas.

ANDREW: Yes, hello?

CONAN: You're on the air, Andrew. Go ahead, please.

ANDREW: Oh, hi. I'm calling about the corps at Texas A&M...


ANDREW: ...and the band there. As you know this a pseudo-military fraternity that graduates lieutenants to the Armed Forces. And there's quite a bit of, I guess, what you would call hazing going on there. But when I was a member of the corps, I went through as a freshman and was hazed. And in a fair number of classes, I did haze younger cadets. But I don't see (unintelligible) hazing gets there. In a military institution, it serves to test one's commitment to the group, which is an important aspect of military.

CONAN: I can understand that, but it is also an institution where the - those of you who graduate will go on to be controlling officers in the Army or the Marine Corps with control over lethal force. People have been abused. People have been physically harmed. Does not – is not this the wrong culture?

ANDREW: Was this - the culture of the military is trained to kill. It's not an attractive part of the culture, but it's an important part of our society. We have to have men who are willing to and able to execute lethal force (unintelligible)...

CONAN: I understand that. But should not those men use that lethal force with great care?

ANDREW: Well, absolutely. But there's no polite way to kill a man. You know, and no matter what wars of violent acts, I mean, you have to have men trained in violence to execute force. It's not pleasant, but it's necessary.

CONAN: No, I understand all of that. But when you are hazed, you develop psychological problems that could manifest themselves on the battlefield and contribute to a very serious mistake.

ANDREW: That is true, but - that is true, and that's something that you dealt with. Wartime psychology is an important thing and not fully understood, but only recently becoming understood. But the hazing that goes into that, there's no way you can remove hazing from that kind of training. You're asking men to walk into danger, perform a task they otherwise would find meaningless. You have to get them in the right mind to do that, and hazing is an effective way to perform that. They're shaving bald, that kind of thing, sleep deprivation, the physical discomfort - all those things are necessary to forge a man into a tool capable of executing that kind of violence.

CONAN: Donna Freitag, he's talking about unit bonding, which a lot of institutions believe is critical to performance on - in any number of places, including the battlefield.

FREITAG: Yeah. Boy, that's scary. I just don't see the correlation between hazing and preparing men and women for war or battle. You know, I'm looking at it from a band perspective, and, you know, it's - to me it has leadership written all over it, in regards to the drum major, in regards to rank leaders, section leaders. And, you know, a part of our responsibility as educators at a university is to help students become better educator, better leaders when they leave. And I think we really play a large part in that. And to agree with hazing and to allow that kind of behavior, are we really getting them ready for life after college?

You know, talk to students about, you know, whether they're in business or engineering or whatever their major might be, is at some point in time, they're going to be in charge of a group of people. And how will they lead them, is it through hazing rituals? Well, they'll probably have everyone quit and you're going to get fired. But how are you going to lead that group, moving forward. And so as far as leadership goes, I don't think hazing has any part to do with producing great leaders in our society.

CONAN: Donna Freitag, marching band liaison at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Also with us, Marcus Chanay, vice president of student life at Jackson State University. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Cliff(ph) on the line. Cliff is with us from Southfield in Michigan.

CLIFF: Hi, how's it going?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

CLIFF: Good. Good. Yeah. I came up in '97 in the Florida A&M University marching band, and there was hazing all over the place. And one thing I can tell you is that hazing is an individual choice. It's up to the individual, whether you want to go through any type of process or ritual or not, you know? If you're one that is prone to fall influence by your peers, hazing is definitely there for you. But if you're one that can stray away from peer hierarchies and want to stand your ground of being an individual, hazing is never a problem at all.

CONAN: Don't you fear getting kicked out or ostracized?

CLIFF: Well, if you're there for marching band, I let my music playing ability and my marching do the talking. If you're an excellent and precise marcher, if you know fundamentally all your music techniques and you're able to teach others and duplicate yourself, I found that that is what gets you your respect.

CONAN: There is also - by simply not participating, you're also tacitly condoning a system which, well, the investigation remains to be seen, but there's a girl in the hospital with a broken leg and there's a man in the morgue.

CLIFF: Right. Right. Right. Well, not condoning because, you know, physical hazing or mentally hazing, I really don't condone. But I can say that this - both parties are at fault, the parties that are hazing and the party that chose to participate in the event. It's unfortunate Robert Champion and also the young lady who had got her leg broken, but they put themselves in that predicament, unfortunately. And the world is tough. You know, you learn after high school, after you go away from mom and dad, yeah, you know, one bad decision could put you in a predicament that can ultimately change your future.

CONAN: It could also get you suspended, kicked out, charged...

CLIFF: It's true...

CONAN: ...with a crime, yeah.

CLIFF: This is true. I can know - in my experience, their band director, Dr. Julian E. White who has been suspended currently, you know, he gave us the pep talk as freshman, let us know that if we had any problems at all, if there was any individual that we had a situation with, just put the name on a piece of paper, slide it under the door, and that he would go and take it from there administratively. And he did. Many band members were kicked out just on that process alone. So...

CONAN: Well, as we've heard from Marcus Chanay and Donna Freitag, just - I'm sure other procedures were put into place. They may have been inadequate. It's more than just that that's involved.

CLIFF: Well, actually...

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, Cliff, but we just have a few seconds left. Marcus Chanay, I wanted to ask you. When it gets so serious, these bands are really important. Would you consider saying, that's enough, we got to stop this?

CHANAY: Yeah. The bands are very important, but I think it comes to a point in time, and that's why we have even - we no longer - from a hazing standpoint at Jackson State or even suspending, we are now expelling. But I have a - I can tell you this much. From a band director standpoint, it is a tough job, and Donna made it very clear and evident that trying to look over two, three, 400 individuals is very key. But when it comes to a point in time when bands can no longer follow the rules and regulations, you're going to find that those bands will be leaving the fields.

CONAN: We're talking about band hazing. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.