It’s the time of year when, all across the nation, parents are getting their college-bound students ready to leave the nest. May I suggest as you shop for the essentials — you know, the bed linens, the mini microwave and the ubiquitous bean bag chair — you tell your child the story of Robert Tipton Jr.
Robert left Memphis, Tenn., with big plans for the future. He attended High Point University in North Carolina. In the spring of 2012, Robert pledged to become a member of the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity because, what college kid doesn’t want to feel like they are part of a popular group, right?
On the morning of March 26, 2012, young Robert was found beaten, unconscious and not breathing in an apartment not far from the High Point campus. When paramedics got him to the hospital, he was declared dead.
Robert’s devastated mother, Deborah, was not satisfied with the answers she got from campus security and local law enforcement, so she hired an investigator to dig deeper into the circumstances of her boy’s death.
The North Carolina Medical Examiner’s autopsy had made note of the contusions and hemorrhaging Robert suffered on the right side of his head, left side of his face and neck and his anterior abdomen, but declared the cause of death was “oxymorphone poisoning.”
The report Deborah Tipton commissioned concluded otherwise. It determined the awful beating Robert got — as part of an alleged hazing ritual — caused him to “sustain a concussion which precipitated the ... aspiration of gastrointestinal contents.” In other words, he fell unconscious from the beating and choked to death on his own vomit.
In a lawsuit Tipton filed a few months ago, she alleges that her son was “hazed viciously by members of Delta Sig at the direction of (Michael) Qubein,” who just happens to be the son of High Point University’s president, Nido Qubein. It is believed Robert was lured to the off-campus apartment, but his phone had been tampered with. The lawsuit claims that as Robert lay dead or dying, Michael Qubein took possession of his cell phone and deleted text messages.
Neither the university nor the Qubein family has commented on the specific charges. The elder Qubein has only said Tipton’s conclusions could not “be further from the truth.”
“Delta Sig ran wild on and near campus,” the lawsuit claims. “This included illegal and rampant use of alcohol, drugs, violence and hazing of its pledges, including the hazing that resulted in the plaintiff’s death.”
The Tipton family believes the perpetrators have been protected from punishment because of the university president’s standing in the community.
The legal system will ultimately decide the Tipton case, but the sad fact is, the picture painted in the court documents regularly occurs on college campuses across the country: booze, drugs and over-the-top hazing disguised as tradition.
It is more than simple one-on-one bullying. It’s a culture that somehow convinces the most level-headed kids to submit to outrageous treatment because they feel popularity is just around the corner.
Legally speaking, hazing is specifically against the law in 44 states — only Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming have not passed such laws, depending instead on long-standing assault statutes. Many institutions of higher learning have anti-hazing policies as well. But, according to Inside Hazing, an organization whose mission is to provide methods of prevention and intervention in hazing, more than a quarter-million students report they endured hazing as part of joining a college athletic team. Forty percent say their coach was aware of it, and 22 percent said the coach participated in the hazing.
Sadly, USA Today reports that at least one college student has died every year since 1970 due to some sort of initiation gone wrong.
The age-old practice of forcing a newbie to submit to violence, excessive or dangerous eating and drinking, even sexual humiliation, doesn’t only happen on college campuses, and it’s not just fraternities and sororities that dish it out. Students in marching bands, class clubs and other college-sponsored organizations have also fallen victim.
High school and middle school kids have reported being subjected to and voluntarily submitting to hazing rituals. But younger kids come home after class or club events, and observant parents can sense if something is wrong. It’s those students who go away to school who are most vulnerable.
You may have instilled good judgment in your student, but once they leave home, the temptations and peer pressure can be overwhelming. Illegal underage drinking is rampant on and around college campuses. So is drug use and casual sex. Introduce the ritual of hazing into the equation and even the best kids can morph into either a tormentor or the tormented.
The long-standing federal Clery Act requires universities to publish their campus crime statistics every year so students and their parents can factor in that information as they choose a school. But the law focuses on cases of rape and other sexual assaults, not hazing. New proposed changes would have colleges also release statistics about instances of stalking, dating violence and domestic violence on campus. Again, nothing about vicious or even deadly hazing.
If you have a college-bound student, take time to talk to them about this. Discuss the issues of drinking and drugs. Talk about self-esteem and how the quest to fit in in a new environment can sometimes blind a person to reality. Heck, bring up the “golden rule” if you must and urge them to insist their classmates treat them thusly. Make your young adult understand that no group that would degrade or humiliate them is worth belonging to.
A final note: If your student falls victim to a crime on campus, don’t hesitate to call local law enforcement. Campus security can be helpful, but they work at the pleasure of the university hierarchy, which is sometimes more interested in downplaying campus crimes and less interested in achieving real justice for your child. Just ask Deborah Tipton.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.