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Prosecutors get USF hazing case

Tampa police were called to this strip-mall storefront office on W Busch Boulevard to investigate a complaint of hazing involving the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity of the University of South Florida.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Tampa police were called to this strip-mall storefront office on W Busch Boulevard to investigate a complaint of hazing involving the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity of the University of South Florida.

TAMPA — When officers went to the half-empty strip mall on Busch Boulevard last week, the case was classified as a battery.

It has since become much more: an investigation into beating and hazing allegations, the suspension of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity at the University of South Florida and now a request to prosecutors to decide whether to file criminal charges against former USF students.

"This case has been referred to us," said Mark Cox, a spokesman for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office.

The investigation involves an unspecified number of former USF students as potential suspects and current students as victims, officials said.

Beyond that, authorities said little Tuesday about the events under investigation or the charges, if any, that could be filed. But there are at least a few possibilities.

Florida law defines battery as touching or hitting someone against their will.

But what if a fraternity pledge went along with the abuse?

Then Florida's antihazing statute could come into play. Passed in 2005, the law doesn't allow a defendant to use a victim's consent as a defense.

And it defines a wide range of abuse as hazing: physical brutality such as whipping, beating, branding and exposure to the elements; forced consumption of food, liquor or drugs; and any forced activity that could harm a student's physical health, mental health or dignity.

Hazing that results in serious bodily injury is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Tampa police said they were called Friday to investigate two possible hazing incidents that took place at 2112 W Busch Blvd., a strip-mall storefront office for J&G Tax.

The incidents occurred about 11:30 p.m. Aug. 22 and 23, police said. By then, neighboring businesses — among them a hair salon, print shop and travel agency — would have long been dark.

Joel Germain, the manager of J&G Tax, said he was in Miami those nights and had no idea what happened.

"I don't know who would allow something like this to happen," said Germain, 37, who did not go to USF but would not say whether he ever belonged to the fraternity.

Omega Psi Phi has been on USF's campus since 1972 but has no fraternity house on campus and just two active members.

When USF administrators learned of the allegations, they suspended the chapter from conducting any business on campus.

"It's an abusive, inhumane activity that we don't tolerate," Jennifer Meningall, USF's vice president for student affairs, said of hazing.

A Tampa attorney for a local alumni chapter of the fraternity said any misconduct that occurred was done without the knowledge or the approval of Omega Psi Phi's local or national organizations.

"Whatever occurred to the young men was underground activity, not sanctioned, not condoned," attorney Delano Stewart said.

But it is all too common, researchers say.

About 76 percent of fraternity and sorority members and athletes who took part in a 2007-08 hazing survey reported experiencing hazing at least once, said Mary Madden, an associate research professor at the University of Maine and co-director of a national study of student hazing.

For the study, which surveyed more than 11,000 students at 53 universities, hazing was defined as any behavior that humiliates, degrades or endangers a person.

To researchers' alarm, hazing seems to have become part of campus culture.

"There was a culture on many of the campuses that hazing was just part of the campus and woven into it and accepted as the norm," Madden said.

While the news of the Omega Psi Phi investigation shocked some USF students, others said it was no surprise.

"I was in a frat and I know hazing goes on," said biology major Donovan Strauss, 21, who would not name his former fraternity.

Everyone knows you are not supposed to participate in hazing, he said, but that doesn't stop it. In his experience, it mostly involved alcohol.

Nationwide, Omega Psi Phi has been dogged by allegations of hazing for more than a decade, resulting in chapter suspensions, lawsuits, even a $1 million settlement.

"A lot of African-American fraternities have an issue with physical hazing," said Lawrence Ross Jr., the author of The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities.

"This is the beginning of the underground pledging period," he said. "When school starts, people start taking pledges to secret places and start beating them."

Often members of the fraternity who are no longer in school pressure others to engage in hazing, he said.

Many are in their 20s and are still hanging around, he said. Some have access to "more secret areas," such as a warehouse, to conduct the hazing.

"The violence feeds upon itself," Ross said. Older members don't want anyone to tell them that their experience being hazed was meaningless, he said.

With Omega Psi Phi, expressing manhood is a main part of the organization's DNA, he said.

"Which is completely fine if you define manhood in a healthy way," he said. But he said when it turns violent, it can attract the wrong kind of man, threatening the very soul and future of the organization.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Prosecutors get USF hazing case 08/31/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 1, 2010 12:00am]

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