In November, after one of the last half-time performances of the football season, Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion boarded a bus with his fellow band members for the short ride to an Orlando hotel where they were scheduled to stay the night.
Somewhere between the football field and the hotel parking lot, 13 of the musicians attacked Champion, beating him so badly that he began to vomit. Champion, 26, remained on the bus after everyone else got off. By the time someone thought to call the paramedics, he was dead.
Earlier this month, Florida law enforcement officials charged 11 of Champion's attackers with hazing him to death, a charge that could send each of them to jail for six years. Two others face lesser charges. No one has explained what prompted the attack.
Hazing, the often humiliating and sometimes painful rituals many groups force new members to go through before they're accepted, is nothing new. The elite FAMU "Marching 100" band earned its reputation for vicious hazing rituals decades ago, and athletic teams, fraternities and sororities on many college campuses have similar traditions. Champion's death has prompted calls for school and law enforcement officials to crack down on the practice, with one Florida legislator even proposing a federal law to curtail the rituals.
But hazing experts say simply punishing the behavior will never stop the problem. The culture of highly exclusive student groups must change before hazing incidents can ever be stamped out.
Hazing may seem like a newer form of harassment that is "on the rise," but experts say hazing has been around for centuries. Hank Nuwer, a hazing researcher who recently retired from Indiana University, said that records of hazing incidents appear as early as the time of St. Augustine and Carthage in the fourth century. Hazing also ran rampant during the time of Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Nuwer said. Cherie Michaud, another hazing specialist and contributor to HazingPrevention.org, also found evidence of hazing as early as the 17th century.
Although many hazing incidents reported today involve fraternities and sororities, a 2008 study conducted by Elizabeth Allen, a hazing researcher and professor of education and human development at the University of Maine, found 55 percent of college students involved in all forms of clubs, organizations or teams have experienced hazing.
Among all campus organizations, Allen's study found the highest number of hazing incidents occurred among athletic teams, with 74 percent of students involved reporting hazing. Seventy-three percent of students involved in fraternities and sororities reported experience with hazing. But Allen found some of the most surprising responses came from performing arts organizations, intramural teams, and academic clubs. More than half of students-56 percent-involved in performing arts organizations, which include marching bands, said they experienced hazing. And 49 percent of those involved in intramural teams and 25 percent of those involved in academic clubs reporting hazing.
Some students might be surprised to learn the organization they want to join participates in hazing, but many know ahead of time the kind of humiliation they will face. So, why do they do it?
The desire to belong to a particular group is often so strong that new members agree to participate in hazing rituals as a way to prove their self-worth, strength or worthiness, Allen said. And the group's existing members, who went through the same rituals themselves, don't want to be the ones to stop the practice.
"There is a genuine belief that the status quo would be interrupted if a group allows new members to come in," Nuwer said. "They believe hazing is beneficial for camaraderie."
Many students haze because, that's all they know, Michaud said: "It is what was done to them, so they feel that they need to keep this rite of passage or tradition going."
All three experts say hazing won't stop until a majority of students agree that it's wrong. Although some schools have taken a step toward educating their students about hazing, one-day classes led by school officials are not enough, Nuwer said. Undergraduates must lead the charge themselves, he said. Nuwer advocates for ongoing programs that include constant reminders for students about why hazing is wrong.
Allen describes hazing as a cultural norm. Unless it is cast from normality and replaced with different and better activities, it will not end, she said: "Hazing isn't just about individually bad groups or 'bad apples'â€¦..In order to stop hazing there must be a culture shift, we have to create the new normal."
FAMU officials are working to break the cycle of hazing in the marching band, which will remain on suspension for the next school year. Champion's parents, who have said publicly they believe school officials and influential alumni conspired to cover up the details of their son's death, want the group permanently disbanded. They also want people to stop referring to the beating as a hazing incident and start calling it murder.
After law enforcement officials arrested the students who attacked her son, Pam Champion told the Associated Press she was disappointed with the charges: "I thought it should send a harsher message."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.