Pulling off the blindfold of a harmful practice
Words by Cameron Gorman | Photos by Dani Watts
In his office in Kent State’s Twin Towers, Todd Kamenash is an imposing man. Tall, with wide shoulders under his button-down, the assistant dean of students and director of student conduct embodies the athlete-turned-administrator. He seems like the kind of all-American guy who might have had an easy ride through college.
Ask him, and he’ll tell you different.
“I was on a sports team, a club sports team, and I was a sophomore when I was able to make it onto that club team,” Kamenash says. “And I had guys that were my year, and they were on the team the year before, and they just absolutely treated us like garbage.”
On his team in college, Kamenash was hazed. He and other players were forced to do all of the team’s setup and had to carry stuffed animals in public for months.
“We had our first tournament where we went out of state,” Kamenash says. “We were blindfolded. There were several of us, at the time there were four of us. … They blindfolded us and made us hold hands. And they had it orchestrated, and they were telling us, ‘One of you has not done what we want. … And as a result, effective immediately, that person is not going to be one of us anymore.’ And then, everybody, because of how they set it up, had a hand release, so we didn’t know who was next to us, but each of us, a hand let go.”
As it turned out, veterans had been stationed in between them. Still, it was frightening.
“It gives me chills now to think about it,” Kamenash says. “That was mentally a mess for us. How do you do that? Who thought of that and thought that was going to be OK?”
For Kamenash, hazing, which Kent State defines as “any action or situation intentionally created, whether on or of university premises, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule,” took the form of humiliation and intimidation.
For some at Kent State, it was physical. To others, like David Carlyn, a member and the corresponding secretary of Phi Kappa Psi at Kent State, and a member of IFC, the Interfraternity Council, where he’s the director of community service and philanthropy, hazing is anything that causes discomfort.
“Hazing’s … anything that makes you feel uncomfortable physically, mentally or emotionally,” Carlyn says. “Anything that would cause trauma. Anything … that would degrade an individual.”
These definitions of hazing can seem familiar, even unthreatening. It’s college, or a sports team or a club. To get in, you have to go through something, right? No harm, no foul. But with the rise of coverage on the topic nationwide, awareness of the true threat of hazing is growing — and there are those at Kent State who want to stop it entirely.
The cultural shift is becoming evident for those such as Matt Sellers, who says his fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa, holds hazing at zero tolerance.
“With all the national press, the bigger organizations, they don’t want to deal with it,” Sellers says, “because they can start a new one at any college they want to, so they could just get rid of you if you do it. So now, it’s more of a PR thing from the top.”
Some working to prevent hazing, like Dennis Campbell, the assistant director for Fraternity and Sorority Life in the Center for Student Involvement at Kent State, have good reason.
Campbell is proud to tell you that he was a part of a fraternity in college. A Sigma Nu. And he’s proud to tell you that, at its core values, Greek life offers something no other experience on campus can.
“I believe the fraternity … is the best thing on the college campus when done right,” Campbell says. “Nothing else compares to the advancement that a student can recieve and the experience a student can get out of that and lifetime satisfaction and commitment, which was shown in a recent study, that members of fraternities and sororities have a better lifetime of career and happiness than non-members.”
When asked to describe his hazing, though, he goes quiet.
“I would prefer not to,” Campbell says. “It’s — it was not good. It was not necessarily saying dangerous activities. I’m just saying it wasn’t good and it did nothing for me as a man. And so, I don’t dwell on it. I dwell on how I can prevent it from happening to anyone else.”
Hazing, which Campbell defines as “unwanted, uncomfortable situations,” has been a point of contention in the media recently, with stories such as the death of Penn State student Tim Piazza dominating headlines. But the fight against hazing in Greek life is an old one.
Andrew Coffey died during hazing at Florida State University’s Pi Kappa Phi in November of 2017. Maxwell Gruver lost his life in September of the same year to hazing at Louisiana State University’s Phi Delta Theta. In November of 2012, it was David Bogenberger at Northern Illinois University. In 2011, George Desdunes at Cornell. 2010, Samuel Mason, Radford University. 2009, Donnie Wade, Prairie View A&M University. 2008, Carson Starkey at Cal Poly. The list goes on.
“I personally was hazed,” Campbell recalls. “And my organization has since … eliminated hazing in my chapter. I now serve as the chapter adviser for my chapter, and so we’ve spent our time eradicating it. It doesn’t happen in our organization. We don’t permit it, and so we’ve spent a lot of time on that.”
No one has died of hazing at Kent State, but in 2013, the Gamma Tau Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi was suspended for a history of hazing, including paddling, caning and mental anguish.
Kamenash says they aren’t the only ones who have been disciplined through the years. In fact, he says, there have been “several.”
“We’ve had paddling, yes,” Kamenash recalls. “… I don’t remember if it was here or at my previous place where we had blindfolding. So I’ve been here since 2010, and we’ve had a lot of different varieties of things that have occurred, and thankfully, the level of harm has been limited, but … the paddling is an extreme. That’s happened since I have been here, and the people freely admitted to it. And in that situation, the fraternity was found responsible and endured sanctions.”
Sanctions for fraternities found to be involved with these risky behaviors can range anywhere from interim measures to suspension or other consequences. Kamenash says there is no norm.
In the Kappa Alpha Psi case, crackdown came in the form of a previous suspension, two probations and, finally, another suspension, according to the Kent Stater’s reporting. It lasted three years.
“It’s a case-by-case situation, and it really is so dependent on the issues that occured,” Kamenash says. “If there was some alcohol there, there could be some element of alcohol education. If it’s severe or pervasive, and it’s creating a safety risk to the university, then yeah, we have to say, ‘You need a timeout.’”
Those sanctions, though, aren’t meant to punish, but to change, Kamenash explains. He seems to have thought this philosophy through before, perhaps explained it to many other kids sitting across from his desk.
“Look, I’m not telling you not to have a good time,” Kamenash says. “I’m not telling you to find that what you’re doing is bad. I’m not judging you. What I’m saying is, you have an opportunity. You have an opportunity because we didn’t just completely de-recognize you. We gave you an opportunity to review yourself. If you want to think of me as the bad guy, OK. This isn’t about me. … My goal is not to wield power. My goal is to help these people think about for themselves: What does this mean to them?”
Carlyn, who also serves as the community service chair for the Order of Omega, an honorary organization for Greek members, says he hasn’t heard anything about hazing at Kent State. Still, he seems to recognize the issue.
“I would hate to think that there is, but I would be ignorant to say that it doesn’t go on,” Carlyn says. “ … I know for a fact, my fraternity, we don’t do that. We don’t accept that at all, and I would hope that’s the same for all others, but I can’t say or know what they all do.”
Lamar Hylton, the dean of students at Kent State, seems to share Carlyn’s skepticism. “Hazing, party culture, alcohol, high-risk drinking, sexual misconduct, diversity and inclusion issues, you name it,” Hylton says. “I don’t want to sugarcoat it for what it is. Those are the issues that we deal with, and also are some of the driving forces and driving attractions for many of the people who are joining our organizations, unfortunately.”
Hylton, an energetic man with a bright bow-tie, is also involved with a fraternity: Phi Beta Sigma.
“These organizations were founded on the principles of brotherhood or sisterhood, scholarship and service, and so regardless of what organization you are aligning yourself with, it is likely, about 99 percent chance, that you would be hearing those terms,” Hylton says. “… That is what distinguishes a fraternity or sorority member: that you are committing yourself to those values in a very prominent way and that you are in some ways taking up the mantle to be academically successful, to provide quality and meaningful service to the community and to share and to promote the concept of brotherhood or sisterhood among all people. Those are the reasons why you join an organization. We have gotten very far away from that, in my opinion.”
But what about fraternities breeds this behavior?
“I think it’s very individual to the individuals that are participating in the behaviors,” Hylton says. “Some of it may be power, some of it may be, ‘This is the way that I was brought in, and so I have to do it to somebody else.’ Some of it is … allowing the organization to make the individual rather than the individuals making the organizations. Some of it is — most of it is — downright buffoonery.”
Carlyn believes it might be a misguided way to bond.
“It’s a concern because you have people with different trains of thought,” Carlyn says. “You think, some people believe — I don’t even understand it myself — some people believe that hazing is a way to create a stronger bond, it’s a way to … test devotion or whatever. I just don’t see it. … It’s coming out now because people aren’t afraid to speak out about it.”
Campbell, who admits he also participated in hazing, because “that was the culture of it,” contests that hazing isn’t the way to foster friendships.
“A lot of times, it’s the destroying of self-worth,” Campbell says. “You also don’t know the individual and their past experiences, and what they’re coming into it, whether it’s through depression, whether it’s loss of a family member, and now you’re doing something to them, and you’re hazing them, and it could cause a whole ricochet, all the way up until death.”
Campbell also mentions that hazing could undermine the very bond it might be trying to forge.
“It systematically destroys trust,” Campbell says. “You can’t trust someone that you treated that way or that treated you that way, there’s an inherent lack of trust and empathy. And loss of humanity.” Because of this, Hylton says hazing, among other recent struggles in Greek life, can undermine the original purpose of the organizations. There are crushed beer cans on the hallowed halls’ floors. “It underscores the issues prevalent in fraternities and sororities, regardless of the reasons why people choose to engage in those behaviors,” Hylton said. “At the core of it, it’s weakening the foundation of things that have been built over hundreds and hundreds of years.”
Fixing hazing, then, can seem like a Sisyphean effort. What isn’t known about can’t be fixed. Still, there is optimism in Kent State’s bones.
“I think anything is possible,” Hylton says. “I never want to say it’s impossible. I think it will take a lot of work to undo. And it will take a lot of continual focus on making sure that we’re not becoming complacent, that we’re not sitting back and resting on our laurels, but that we’re actually continuing to address these problematic behaviors, and I think it can be done. It will take the work and intentionality of the people who are part of the community.”
Campbell says his group worked toward prevention by overcoming the culture’s occasional acceptance of hazing as normal. In fact, Sellers says he believes if a hazing incident were to come to light today, all of Greek life at Kent State would be shut down.
“We, as a community of scholars, a university, needed to transcend our culture,” Campbell said. “And that’s been the biggest thing for us, and my chapter specifically, is to transcend the culture and address the issues.”
He attests that hazing is dangerous not only in a physical sense, but in a mental one.
“Yeah, there’s scars that will never heal from those situations,” Campbell says. “That’s why it’s so dangerous: It reopens old wounds and creates new scars that can’t ever fully be healed. And you work the best you can, … but there’s moments that will always, … especially when you’ve participated in it, that wound never fully heals. So, for me, … my goal has always been to eradicate it.”
And the effort to stamp hazing out seems to be shared by nearly everyone on the administrative level. Hylton says he has been speaking to Kent State Greek leaders to try to encourage preventative measures.
“I shared with our fraternity and sorority council leaders last semester that I would really like for them to put together a plan as to how to begin to proactively address these issues,” Hylton says. “I don’t want to have to wait until somebody comes forward and complains or we have a major issue to then begin to try to address behaviors that may or may not exist.”
Kent State Greek life hosts an annual “Hazing Prevention Week” already, part of a national event that encourages schools and campuses to raise awareness about the phenomenon.
“I think it’s incumbent upon any fraternity or sorority community … to be as proactive as possible to mitigate as much opportunity for these behaviors to be resident in any one community,” Hylton says. “There’s probably behaviors that need to be changed in our community. I mean, I think that you would find that with any fraternity or sorority community around the country. It’s all about the way in which you address it, and try to be as proactive and innovative and cutting-edge as you possibly can to minimize or mitigate any opportunity for those behaviors to be a prominent part of the culture.”
Fixing hazing isn’t in the realm of impossibility for those invested in Greek Life — they haven’t lost sight of the original values of the groups. The prestige and meaning of their letters still shines through.
But for those affected by hazing, the memories may never truly fade.
“It did nothing to make me a better man,” Campbell says. “And so my pledge has always been: I get a chance to see great men graduate that are in my chapter and see them completely change the world and be better men because they were never touched by something like that. Because it’s cancer, and it destroys people. It destroys grades, destroys lives, causes alcohol addiction, causes all sorts of issues. And we need to destroy it from the root.”