Over the years there has been a lot of media attention related to hazing in fraternities and sororities, where individuals are subjected to emotional and physical harm to the point of injury, psychological trauma and even death.
My son, Harrison Kowiak, was killed in a fraternity hazing in 2008 when he was a Theta Chi pledge. He was 19 years old. He was attending college on an academic and athletic scholarship.
No parent or loved one expects to send their child off to college and have them never come home. Our family was supposed to spend Thanksgiving together in 2008. We never thought that instead, we would be holding a memorial service for our beloved son. Harrison was a bright and caring son and older brother to his younger sister. No parent could ask for a better son. We were so proud of him. I often wonder if Harrison, who would be 30 years old now, would be married, have children and pursuing his dream of being an entrepreneur in the golf industry as he often talked about.
I’m sure many of you have children or nieces and nephews who are in college and either planning to join fraternity/sorority life or continue to have strong ties to the organizations you joined and believe foster brotherhood and sisterhood. Clearly, that is why Harrison wanted to be in a fraternity. He was told the friendships and networking and common beliefs with his brothers, particularly those on the golf team who strongly encouraged Harrison to join, were invaluable. He was told they would “have his back.”
Where were those brothers on the night of the tragedy? Ask yourselves if brothers would treat their incoming brothers as animals.
What Harrison experienced was a “team-building” activity. But it did nothing to build team and everything to create fear. Telling a pledge to run a gauntlet across a dark field where he is repeatedly surprised and targeted by a tackle—does that build team? Harrison was hit multiple times. He had never played tackle sports; he was a golfer. He died of a traumatic brain injury. He died senselessly to join a fraternity. Who treats their incoming brothers so inhumanely? If only they had called 911 immediately. I implore you to stress to your students the importance of calling 911 in an emergency situation. DO NOT let precious minutes go by. Those minutes can save a life!
Call to action
- Keep your ear to the ground.
Are you engaged and knowledgeable about what is happening at meetings, off-campus events, and during initiation week? Do you know what is happening that’s not on the chapter’s official calendar? Be proactive and stave off potential tragedy from occurring.
- Hold students accountable.
Do you turn a “blind eye” when you hear or see hazing occur? You know what hazing is. Is the activity one you would approve if CNN were to drive by and record the activity and broadcast it on media outlets? As a mentor to young adults, if you know about the hazing and turn a blind eye, members know you condone it, which emboldens the negative and dangerous behavior. Don’t be afraid to share examples of poor behavior, confront it as it arises, and suggest alternative activities encouraging safe and supportive behaviors.
- Model the way.
YOU are a leader and should display conduct that does NOT condone hazing. Caution your collegiate brothers or sisters of the repercussions of hazing. Don’t have them ruin their futures by having a felony on their record or serving jail time.
- Stop harmful traditions.
Are you encouraging this behavior because it’s a tradition you went through? Do you think these pledge classes need to honor and carry on with traditions? Stop hazing now! Is it worth having this scar or tragedy on your watch? When will it stop? Do you want a hazing or hazing death to impact the brothers you oversee?
Throughout my years speaking on college campuses telling Harrison’s story, I have met role models in different positions—new members, initiated members, chapter advisors, headquarters and campus staff and more—across fraternities and sororities who are true leaders that stand up to hazing. There are good individuals who are doing outstanding work and are truly setting a good example. I know there are some good Theta Chi brothers. In fact, unrelated to Harrison’s chapter, one outstanding Theta Chi brother was recently awarded the Harrison Kowiak Scholarship to attend the Institute for Hazing Prevention. Another Theta Chi brother organized an event to bring me to his campus to speak to fraternity/ sorority life and share Harrison’s stories. Many of the Harrison Kowiak Fellows have been chosen because of the positive and impactful work they are doing in fraternity/sorority life and athletics in many areas, including hazing prevention.
Sadly, when Harrison was pledging Theta Chi, there were some bad actors, and some individuals knew about hell week and simply looked the other way. Sadly, he didn’t have the “brothers” he was looking for to “watch his back” and fulfill the positive brotherhood he sought in his college experience.
I wish Harrison had experienced true brotherhood, and part of that is the real mentorship that YOU provide as an advisor and volunteer. I miss my son greatly. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. I am grateful for the impact volunteers can have on chapters IF they focus on personal development and proactively root out hazing behaviors. Please don’t let this happen to another parent. I hope YOU never have to walk in my shoes. Losing a child is the worst nightmare you can ever imagine.
Your voice and example matter greatly in the development of young men and women today. Take a stand against hazing and don’t let it color the reputation of fraternities and sororities today. Your founders created a bond based on ethical standards and values forming the backbone of your organization. Won’t you ALL please say NO to hazing?