It was a night like any other when Lianne Kowiak got the call. The Big Brother from the fraternity her son was pledging and an emergency room doctor were on the line saying that 19-year-old Harrison had been injured. "The doctor said we needed to get on a plane and that they were going to airlift him to a trauma center," she recalls. She flew up to from Tampa, Florida, to the North Carolina college town unprepared for what awaited her. Harrison wasn't just injured. He was already on life support after experiencing blunt trauma to the head. "The doctors said there was nothing left they could do. We had to make that hard decision." The tragedy was made even more horrifying by the fact that the story of what exactly happened to Harrison kept changing.
They had initially been told that their son, a star member of the school's golf team, had been injured playing football on campus. Then they were told it was a game off-campus. It wasn't until they were going through Harrison's things that they started to piece together how he got hurt. She came across a piece of paper about a "team building exercise" that took place the night of his accident. "Right then my suspicions arose," says Kowiak. "I said to my husband that something more has happened."
Though when she started to question, she faced a wall of silence from the fraternity. The Kowiaks eventually pieced together the sad truth. There were just two pledges -- Harrison and another boy. That night, they were dressed in light colors and driven out to a remote field. They were blindfolded and told they must get from one end of the field to the other and touch the sacred rock. All the while, the fraternity brothers viciously and repeatedly tackled them. For Harrison, one of those hits proved deadly.
Immediately after, "the boys panicked, they didn't know what to do," says Kowiak. "There was a helicopter pad next to the field. If they had called 911 right away, maybe he could have been flown to the trauma center in Charlotte sooner."
Those "what-if"s haunt her to this day. She often gets the question: Why would a person subject themselves to this kind of treatment in the name of brother or sisterhood? "Harrison could have chosen not to belong," she says. "But there is a lot to be said for peer pressure. A lot of guys from the golf team were in it. I asked him if it was safe and he said, 'Yeah. I think so.'"
Though she never envisioned it would end like this for her child when he first floated the idea of joining a fraternity during his sophomore year. "We had a conversation about it," Kowiak recalls. "He said, 'I'm thinking about pledging.' I asked, 'Why do you think you need to?'" His response: "It's a small university and I want the complete college experience." That is the motivation for thousands of students every year at universities across this country. For most, belonging to a frat or sorority is a gateway to a party-filled four years and connections after graduation. But there is a darker side. According to StopHazing.org, 3 out of 5 students experience hazing (and shockingly, 47 percent of students say they were hazed in high school too). Alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, humiliation, and sex acts are the most common abusive tactics.
For Harrison -- and 59 other young people who were the victims of hazing from 2005 to 2008 -- the fun and games turned tragic with little consequence to those in charge. The fraternity Harrison was pledging closed the local chapter, but there was no disciplinary action taken. The district attorney's office released a statement saying that there was "no basis for criminal charges" in his death. The biggest barriers to justice are the members of these groups. "Research has found that 37 percent didn't want to get their team or group in trouble," says David Kerschner of StopHazing.org. "And 20 percent were afraid of negative consequences from team or group members, 14 percent were afraid of becoming outsiders, and 54 percent provided other reasons that tended to fall into a couple of categories." Broken down, those categories are as follows:
Minimization of Hazing - “It was no big deal.”
Being Hazed Is a Choice - “I had a choice to participate or not.”
Rationalization - “It made me a better man.”
Normalization - “It was tradition so I didn’t mind."
Lack of Awareness - “I didn’t understand it was hazing until much later.”
Disagreements With Definitions of Hazing - “There is no problem with some actions the law considers hazing.”
For her part, Kowiak tried to bring an anti-hazing bill to Congress and establish an anti-hazing committee, but not surprisingly, changing the law has not been easy. "Forty-four states have anti-hazing laws," she says. "But there are a lot of loopholes." Opponents, however, insist there is no need for a national law since colleges and Greek codes of conduct punish would-be hazers. Yet hazing is still a problem on campuses all over the country. Just last month, a California State University student died during a one-mile fraternity pledge hike. They agreed to close that chapter and a criminal investigation is underway. But, warns Kowiak, "closing the local chapters is just a Band-Aid approach. This is happening through the auspices of the university. The university is sanctioning these fraternities and sororities."
So her fight continues. As long as children are being hazed, she feels she has work to do. "Nothing will ever bring my son back," she says. "But I will not let Harrison die in vain. Other families need to know. This has to be incorporated into the conversation when kids go off to college. This is very real. This can happen to anyone. It's my mission to get the word out."
Kids need to stand against this too. "These groups have this mentality that newbies should go through it because we went through it," she says. "But I always tell students to do the Mom Test. If you are participating in an activity, ask yourself, is this something I want my mom to see? If not, walk away and tell someone."
Have you ever experienced hazing?
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