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Fraternity Violence: The Pledging Debate : The Greeks: There is a move afoot to do away with hazing, but the traditionalists are outraged and vow to fight.


Morehouse required that students wait until their sophomore year before joining a fraternity. But already, Joel had learned some Alpha Phi Alpha history and some "steps"--precision dance moves that are part of perhaps the showiest element of black Greek life, the competitive "step show."

By last summer, he was certain--Joel told his mother he would be pledging in the fall. She suggested that he wait.

"I said to him, "I think your (grade point average) is more important,' " recalls Adrienne Harris, "because I know pledging takes a lot of time from studies, even though it's not supposed to. You're doing so well. I don't want to see that drop.'

"He said, 'Mom, I can handle both.' "

Joel Harris was preparing for a career in business law. He was attracted to Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest of the black fraternities, because of the political and social leaders who have been "Alpha men"--Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta Mayors Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry. Belonging to this brotherhood "is something he thought was very, very important," Harris says, especially "at a premier black college."

Before Joel returned to school, his mother told him, "Just be careful." She suspected there would be some sort of "pranks" involved in pledging. He said, "Mom, I know when too much is too much."

"They all know there will be some of that," Harris says, "because these are the tales and fish stories men talk about."

Around 3 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 18, Adrienne Harris was awakened by her telephone. It was the dean of student affairs at Morehouse College, calling to inform her that her 18-year-old son--her only child--was dead.

Joel had collapsed two hours earlier in an apartment outside of Atlanta. He was one of 19 Morehouse students in the room who wanted to pledge Alpha Phi Alpha. They were being overseen by fraternity members, though the school-sanctioned pledging period hadn't yet begun.

To this day, Harris doesn't know exactly what happened to her son at that secret gathering. His death was attributed to an irregular heart rhythm, the result of a congenital defect. (He had undergone corrective heart surgery at age 2, but that didn't seem to interfere with his physical development. "Joel has been very athletic all of his life," Harris says. "Little League, gymnastics, karate.")

Investigators from the Cobb County medical examiner's office found that Joel Harris and the other aspiring pledges were being hazed. Hours before he died, Joel had been punched in the chest and slapped in the face as part of a ritual that eyewitnesses called "thunder and lightning." It's unclear whether he was being hit when he collapsed.

The medical examiner's report didn't declare the hazing to be a "direct cause" of Joel's death, but it stated that he was "under an intensive amount of anxiety and stress" that night.

Eight Alphas have been charged with hazing, a misdemeanor in Georgia since 1988. Each of them faces a maximum fine of $500. (After this highly publicized case, the Georgia Legislature reclassified hazing as a "high and aggravated" misdemeanor, punishable by 12 months in prison or a $5,000 fine.)

"We were trying to revive Joel for 10 minutes. It seemed like 10 hours," said Randy Richardson, one fraternity member, during a press conference last November. "There are no words that you can use to explain the feelings that you go through when someone passes in your arms. . . . That's a tragic experience I will have to endure forever."

The most painful irony, for Adrienne Harris, is that black fraternities were founded on noble principles. "If they told me my son had a heart attack giving food to the homeless, I could live with that," she says. "Or had a heart attack tutoring a young kid, I could live with that. Or had a heart attack in the library studying the history of the Alphas, I could live with that.

"But horsing around, I can't live with."

At least 50 college students, nine of them black, have died in the last 15 years because of fraternity or sorority hazing, according to anti-hazing activist Eileen Stevens of Sayville, N.Y. Her count is based on news reports and personal contact with the families of victims.

Her own son, Chuck, died of alcohol poisoning and exposure in 1979 while pledging a local fraternity at Alfred University in New York. On a freezing February night, he was thrown into the trunk of a car with two other pledges. They were ordered to drink a bottle of whiskey and a mixture of beer and wine while fraternity members drove them around.

In the years since, Stevens, who is white, has lobbied for anti-hazing legislation and has spoken at hundreds of colleges and universities. More than 30 states have passed anti-hazing laws in the last decade.

Hazing injuries in white fraternities, Stevens says, usually result from heavy drinking--"coercive chugging," in her words--or "hours of rigorous exercise, combined often with sleep deprivation."

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