ETTRICK -- It was a baptism-like rite by the Appomattox River, with only a small campfire for light, that claimed the lives of two Virginia State University students 34 years ago.

The drowning deaths of Norsha Lynn Delk and Robert L. Etheridge were ruled accidental. Hazing, said one of Delk's professors, "was not talked about at that time as it is now."

But the April 20 drowning of two other Virginia State students under sadly similar circumstances has led to criminal charges and new promises to eliminate what VSU President Keith T. Miller termed "outdated rituals performed in the name of brotherly love."

Four men, including two students, face hazing charges in connection with the deaths of VSU freshmen Marvell Edmondson and Jauwan Holmes, who drowned trying to cross the Appomattox as an initiation for an unsanctioned group known as Men of Honor.

"Life is still life, and death is still death," said Pansy Jacobs-Jackson, a now retired professor who recalled Delk as "brilliant, just brilliant" and said she always wondered why she would join a club with such a ritual.

On Friday, Jacobs-Jackson was among about 500 people who gathered at Daniel Gymnasium for a memorial service — just as she had in 1979 — but this time to remember Edmondson and Holmes.

Their deaths underscore the difficulties universities face in deterring risky behavior that is often disguised by euphemisms and tangled with tradition.

At the University of Virginia this month, Dean of Students Allen Groves called for an early end to pledging and suspended two fraternities pending an investigation after students were found "significantly impaired" as the result of alcohol consumption.

Groves said that in the fall, he plans to bring together fraternity leaders, including national representatives and alumni, to talk "collectively about how do we make this better, how do we overcome these challenges that the fraternity system has faced for years."

VSU — facing the second hazing allegations involving students within a month — is putting together a task force to become more proactive in prevention, said Michael Shackleford, vice president for student affairs.

The task force will look at ways to stiffen penalties for sanctioned organizations but also at strategies to discourage students from participating in unauthorized groups without violating "anyone's constitutional rights," he said.


Yet for all the anti-hazing policies already in place, advocates say universities are not doing enough.

Compared with the 1970s, when hazing was glorified in yearbook pictures, there's "at least lip service" for combating the problem, said hazing watchdog and author Hank Nuwer, a former University of Richmond professor who teaches journalism at Franklin College in Indiana.

But with at least one death at the college level each year since 1970, "I don't see any improvement," he said.

The beating death of a Florida A&M University drum major in 2011 showed the insidious reach of hazing beyond fraternities.

That case, which last month resulted in manslaughter charges against former band members, is being closely tracked by hazing watchdogs, said Nuwer, whose books on hazing include "Broken Pledges" and "Wrongs of Passage."

So far, he said, he has seen "a lot of threats" but not a lot of follow-through in prosecutions.

Nuwer maintains a website listing 173 deaths since 1838 linked to pledge-related activities, which he notes is a minimum number because no government agency tracks such incidents.

Virginia is one of 44 states with anti-hazing laws, but hazing incidents are not included as a category of offenses that colleges and universities are required to report to the U.S. Department of Education under the federal Clery Act.

Colleges and the sponsoring organizations involved in pledging incidents often seek to evade the label of hazing, Nuwer said, and sometimes even family members "don't like it called hazing. There's a stigma to it."


Nuwer's list includes the drowning death in 1999 of a UR freshman during an initiation ceremony, ironically at the campus lake where he had made anti-hazing documentaries a few years before.

The list includes the 2010 death of a Radford University student from Chesterfield County that resulted in alcohol-related charges against his Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity brothers.

Also on the list is the 1979 case in which Delk and Etheridge, sophomores at what was then Virginia State College, were among about 20 students pledging two campus social groups when they drowned.

Nuwer's last entry notes the deaths of Edmondson and Holmes, who were trying to step across river rocks on the Appomattox when they were swept away.

Such risky behavior is covered under the Virginia code, which defines hazing as including activities "to recklessly or intentionally endanger the health or safety of a student" in connection with initiation or admission into a group regardless of whether the student participates voluntarily.

While Men of Honor is not a club sanctioned by VSU, two of the school's fraternities have been accused of hazing.

Three VSU students, including the president of the student government association, were charged this month with misdemeanor hazing involving multiple victims for incidents last August in the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

Petersburg police released no details on the investigation but said the injuries were not life-threatening.

A second fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma, is on probation.

A former VSU student last fall sued Phi Beta Sigma and several fraternity members alleging he was hospitalized and had to undergo surgery after he endured numerous acts of hazing in 2008 and 2009.

Among those acts, Christopher Rudder alleges he was beaten, forced to eat "unknown materials" that made him vomit and had hot sauce poured on his genitals.

Criminal charges related to the case were dismissed after the defendants helped prepare and attend on-campus educational programs on hazing and fraternity pledging. The students have helped with the university's anti-hazing training, Shackleford said.

But he said the fraternity is prohibited from conducting any activities and will remain on probation as long as any of the students who were members at the time of the incidents remain at VSU.


To Ricky L. Jones, a professor at the University of Louisville who has studied hazing among black fraternities, those incidents raise the question of whether there's "an institutional culture of tolerance" at VSU.

Universities need to move to "a zero-tolerance policy" that would not just suspend a group for hazing but forever ban it from campus, said Jones, author of "Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities."

He believes hazing is so deeply entrenched in certain groups that it can't be stopped short of eradicating the organization.

The mistake schools make is in not understanding that "this is organizational culture, not individual culture," he said. They may suspend the fraternities for a few years but "when the organizations come back, the behavior comes back as well."

"Black Haze," published in 2004, was "a very hopeful book," Jones said, in that he thought exploring the reasons for hazing would end it.

"Almost 10 years later, I think I was wrong," he said.

Jones, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, chose to explore the culture of violence in black fraternities after a young man was "beaten to death, literally" joining his fraternity.

"The big question is, how many more kids have to die before universities really get to the point where they say we've got to just eradicate these groups," he said.

For white and black fraternities, hazing reflects "the cultural definitions of manhood that have developed over time," Jones said.

Among white fraternities, hazing tends to involve alcohol abuse more often than the physical punishment seen in black fraternities, he said. Jones said he believes that is because "this ideal of physical toughness is strongly linked to their idea of manhood."


UVa's Groves said the university has joined a consortium researching the reasons for hazing and strategies to prevent it.

Led by the University of Maine, the consortium issued a report that found more than half of college students involved in clubs, teams and other organizations have experienced hazing. And nearly half report having experienced hazing before coming to college.

The most common practices were alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation and sex acts.

Groves, a lawyer, said he is careful not to use the term "hazing" because of its legal implications and because it "means different things in different contexts. We use the term misconduct or dangerous activities."

Aside from alcohol abuse, UVa sees problems with what's known as "the lineup," in which pledges are taken to a small room and shouted at and humiliated in various ways.

In one case, pledges were forced to eat large quantities of soy sauce, which may seem harmless but is not. "If you ingest a huge volume, the amount of sodium can be lethal," he said.

Over the six years he has been at the university, three fraternities have had their operating agreements with UVa terminated because of misconduct, although one is in the process of being re-established.

He drew criticism this spring for curtailing pledging as too broad-brush of an action, but he told students his decision "was going to be imperfect." He said he chose to be "over-inclusive" to reduce the risk to students.

Groves, a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha, said he is working to improve the fraternity system but remains very supportive of it.

"Changing a culture is challenging but not impossible," he said.

One point that he said he has made clear is that "it is anathema to the good qualities of the fraternity experience to harm a young person that you're saying is going to be brother. That can never ever happen."

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