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circumstances has led to criminal charges and new promises to eliminate what VSU President Keith T. Miller termed “outdated rituals performed in the name of brotherly love.”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 often is disguised by euphemisms and tangled with tradition.
At the University of Virginia this month, Dean of Students Allen Groves called 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 to 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 to 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.