HBCU Marching Band Members Claim Violent Hazing

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When two first-year French horn players in Southern University’s marching band were beaten so badly they had to be hospitalized in intensive care, it exposed a dirty secret: Hazing isn’t reserved for fraternities.

At least one expert says the beatings are a growing problem at historically black colleges, where a spot in the marching band is coveted and the bands are revered almost as much as the sports teams for which they play their rousing fight songs.

“It’s something that deserves more attention,” said Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., who has researched band hazing cases at historically black colleges nationwide and has been called as an expert witness in more than a dozen court cases involving hazing.

“And I’m just talking about violent cases — there could be a ton of those silent cases, the ones that could have been reported but weren’t,” he said.

Kimbrough estimated that 15 percent of the country’s 80 historically black colleges have had violent hazings among band members over the past few years. He’s found that brutal band hazings are not restricted to predominantly black schools but do crop up as a problem among bands that have cliques or subgroups that operate like fraternities — but without school authorization.

The victims at Southern apparently were seeking membership to “Mellow Phi Fellow,” a fraternity-like subgroup of the French horn section, according to investigators.

The three told investigators that on Nov. 27, 2008 — two days before the band performed at Southern’s annual Bayou Classic football game against Grambling State in the Louisiana Superdome — they gathered at the off-campus home of one of their bandmates, where they were blindfolded, doused with water and beaten with a board.

One of the victims elected to stop the ritual after being hit with a board more than 50 times and later identified the suspects, authorities said.

The other two kept going, and were beaten so badly they risked organ failure and were hospitalized for several days in intensive care. They are recuperating, District Attorney Hillar Moore said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison last year briefly suspended its marching band after allegations that underclassmen were forced to drink huge amounts of alcohol.

One of the worst cases concluded when a former band member at historically black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee won a $1.8 million award in 2004 after suffering kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. A jury found five former band members liable in that suit. The victim also settled with the school for an undisclosed amount.

Competition is intense among college bands, and Southern — with 190 members — in particular prides itself on the quality of its shows. There are tryouts for the band, known for its athleticism and synchronized dancing, which travels with the teams and performs around the country.

“What makes the football games … is the band,” said Angel Askew, 19, a Southern freshman from Mesa, Ariz. “A lot of people, to be honest, don’t even watch the football games. They just wait for the next song the band’s going to play.”

Leslie Hicken, the director of bands at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and a division president of the College Band Directors National Association, said hazing often occurs within sections of bands as new members seek approval from senior members who had been through the rituals in years past. New members are reluctant to report it, fearing they would lose their peers’ respect, he said.

“The sections are encouraged by everyone to have their own kind of bonding experience,” Hicken said. “I can see where, if not monitored, it could get out of control. We’re talking about college students here — things are going to evolve on their own.”

The seven defendants in the Southern case originally faced felony charges of aggravated battery and “ritualistic acts” that carried prison sentences of up to 50 years. A plea deal was proposed this past week that would give the seven defendants — ranging in age from 20 to 23 — probation instead of prison time if they plead to lesser charges. Southern suspended all seven indefinitely.

“Hopefully this is just an isolated incident, and one that Southern surely wants to address, because they don’t want this,” Moore, the prosecutor, said.

Southern, with an enrollment of about 7,400, has forced every member of the 180-member “Human Jukebox” to reapply for their spots in the band and sign an anti-hazing pledge, said school spokesman Ed Pratt.

The university had no comment on the proposed plea agreement.

Danielle Winger, 21, a junior from New Orleans, said she has friends in the band and doubts violent hazing is widespread.

“I can honestly say, I’ve never seen someone walking around with black eyes, or broken arms,” Winger said. “I think this was just boys being boys.”

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