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When colleges are blamed for tragic student misbehavior

September 12, 2012|By Karin Klein
  • Hazing victim Robert Champion
Hazing victim Robert Champion (Joseph Brown III / Associated…)

After a 26-year-old drum major was killed in a hazing incident, his school, Florida A&M University, is defending itself in a lawsuit by saying that the victim, Robert Champion, was to blame. He was an adult, he had signed an anti-hazing pledge and he had agreed to be beaten by other members of the marching band on a charter bus last November.

Champion even had discussed with a friend, for months beforehand, whether to go through with it.

It's up to the legal system to decide whether Florida A&M bears any liability in the case, but the argument itself raises troubling questions on both sides. Most students who attend college are legally adults; what is the college's responsibility to keep them from engaging in dangerous and even potentially lethal behavior?

If colleges can wash their hands of ridiculous and sadistic hazing rituals by simply declaring them against college rules and having students sign a pledge, that's pretty much the same as saying no progress will be made against hazing at all. The trustees of Florida A&M voted no confidence in the president over the incident, which led to his resignation in June.  Despite the university's contention that it couldn't have foreseen the events that led to Champion's death, three days before that happened, the administration rejected a recommendation to suspend the marching band.

The band was later suspended, through 2013. There might not be that many members to march, anyway; 11 face criminal charges. And last week, so was a dance team at the university after a parent complained about hazing.

Conversely, is a school more responsible for hazing than for, say, a student who is badly burned after starting a fire with a cigarette that is banned in the dormitories? Or one who dies after a drug overdose when drugs are clearly illegal and against school rules?

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