Naked Sweethearts & Mud Crawls: A Small College's Big Hazing ProblemS

Anonymous posters on Greek Life forums have long swapped rumors about the horrific hazing at Young Harris College, a tiny private college up in Appalachia run by former Georgia Secretary of State and failed gubernatorial candidate Cathy Cox. Now, a potent new lawsuit alleges that YHC administrators turned a blind eye — and some even joined in the fun — as sorority members made rushees sit naked on washing machines while they marked the jiggling parts of their bodies, male pledges engaged in human centipede-style "elephant crawls" through freezing cold creeks, and students dropped out of classes due to the emotional and physical stress of participating in Greek Life.

We spoke with the plaintiffs — one former pledge and two former instructors who say they were fired for challenging the administration— who are suing Young Harris for "reckless indifference" to a "widespread and well-known culture of abusive and sexually charged hazing."

1,035 undergraduates attend Young Harris College, a liberal arts college in the heart of the North Georgia Appalachian Mountains that was founded in 1886 but earned its four-year accreditation just five years ago. YHC advertises both its sustainability initiatives and religious life offerings on its website, but campus culture is dominated by Greek Life — even professors don lettered shirts — and has been for decades, as evidenced by a 1989 hazing-themed edition of Enotah Echoes, the student newspaper. "The actions of some of our campus organizations continue to fly in the face of all moral and legal sense," a professor wrote to his colleagues at the time, urging them not to ignore hazing practices.

It's easy to ignore hazing at YHC because most of the Greek houses are local; this year, only two out of the nine Greek houses are national chapters, and that's an unprecedented number. Students and alumni gushed about the tight-knit community on a Facebook page called Young Harris Students/Alumni Against National Fraternities/Sororities, launched in 2009 when a small group of freshman started pressuring the administration to allow national sororities and fraternities to open on campus. "People, what is our paradise turning into?" one student wrote. "Looking back, nothing was more meaningful than the local greek organizations," an alum recalled. "Together, they brought a sense of absolute unity to the entire college."

But that "absolute unity" also fostered "a widespread and well-known culture of abusive and sexually charged hazing" among the local fraternities and sororities that lack even the bare-bones oversight given to national chapters, according to a recent lawsuit filed against the college by current sophomore Jo Hannah Burch, a former Gamma Psi pledge, and two faculty members who claim they were fired for trying to expose the administration's failings.

Burch, 20, told Jezebel she rushed the local house as a freshman because it was one of the largest and most popular sororities on campus. Gamma Psi girls were known for their high GPAs, but they were also known for hazing hard — although the sisters tactfully called it "education period" instead. On five or six nights in February/March 2012, Burch and her fellow pledges were taken to the nearby woods where they were screamed at, spit upon, and forced to crawl through mud into a freezing creek, often at 2 A.M. on a weeknight. Once, Burch alleges, there was a lightning storm while the girls shivered in the water; the girls still weren't allowed to get up. Burch told Jezebel that two current YHC admissions counselors and alums helped scream at Burch and the other pledges as they kneeled in the mud. (Only one is referenced in the complaint.)

Burch, bruised all over, finally reached a breaking point in mid-March. When she told Gamma Psi’s President and Vice President that she planned to de-pledge, they asked her if she was okay because they didn't want to "wear orange" — as in, go to prison — if she tattled. "Orange isn't my color," Burch recalls one joking. A few days later, Burch reported her ordeal to Susan Rogers, YHC's Vice President of Student Affairs, who eventually decided that Gamma Psi would be suspended for one year but that no individual student or staffer involved in the hazing would be punished, even though Burch could easily identify many of them. She told Burch not to bother filing a police report — if she did, the sorority members would probably sue her.

Burch developed severe depression and couldn't stand to be around the students and staffers who hazed her, a challenge at such a small school. When her father called YHC President Cathy Cox around Easter 2012, she told him that "these things happen." The case seemed closed whether she liked it or not.

But Burch had one more hope: plaintiff Theresa Crapanzano, then a YHC visiting instructor in Communication Studies and Burch’s advisor on the school paper. She opened up to Crapanzano the same day she quit rush, and, unlike Rogers and Cox, Crapanzano was disturbed.

Burch "didn't seem well," Crapanzano told Jezebel, but neither did many of her students that spring; it was only Crapanzano's first year at YHC, but she had already gathered that second semester rush was the reason why kids were coming to class late and withdrawn, if they showed up at all. "The administration wasn't taking it seriously," Crapanzano said. "So we did."

Crampanzo, her colleage Joseph Terry — the case's third plaintiff and a former tenure-track instructor in Communication Studies — and some Enotah Echoes student reporters interviewed students, asked faculty about reports of hazing they had received, and obtained copies of online exchanges among sorority members. The investigation resulted in a list of "highly disturbing" allegations of sexually abusive conduct associated with hazing at YHC, including:

• Forcing female pledges to take part in a “panty run,” in which they are required to run across campus in their underwear as other students, including male students, look on;

• Forcing “sweethearts” (female members of male fraternities) to stand naked and be judged by the fraternity members;

• Forcing “sweethearts” to hump the ground and moan as if having sex, as the fraternity members look on;

• Forcing both female and male pledges to stand in a pool of water in which the older pledges have urinated or defecated in;

• Forcing male pledges to engage in “elephant crawls” through a creek, during which the pledges crawl one behind another, with each pledge’s face planted between the buttocks of the pledge in front of him;

• Forcing female pledges to sit unclothed on running washing machines while members of the sorority use a permanent marker to mark areas of their bodies that jiggle;

• Interrogating students who are believed to have “ratted” on fellow Greeks and making derogatory and sexually explicit personal insults. In one particular instance during the Spring semester, a female student was screamed at to the point of tears in front of an entire sorority and called sex-specific insults such as “cunt” and “whore.”

Crapanzano and Terry instantly took action, circulating a petition among faculty and calling a meeting of the Faculty Forum to discuss why it was (obviously) problematic that there was currently no effective way to penalize individual students and staffers involved in hazing. Some administrators were supportive, but others seemed more concerned about shushing it up.

On April 25, 2012, Crapanzano spoke at a faculty meeting at which YHC President Cathy Cox said the staffer formally accused by Burch wouldn't be penalized because — even though Burch wasn't blindfolded entire time and heard the official repeatedly scream her own name at the pledges (following a “what’s my fucking name?” rally cry) — they were "unable to substantiate" the allegation because eyewitness testimony was “inherently unreliable.” When Crapanzano challenged Cox, Cox threatened her, suggesting that she and Crapanzano should “step outside and fight.” (You can listen to the audio here; it's at 2:03.)

The same week, Crapanzano and the Enotah Echoes student editors were informed that the hazing article they were working on would have to be sent to YHC’s attorney to be “screened” before publication. After Crapanzano argued the decision, she was told that President Cox had ordered that the newspaper not be published at all. Less than a week after Crapanzano and Terry wrote separate emails to President Cox and other members of the administration protesting the censorship, Crapanzano received a termination letter. On May 11th, Terry got one, too.

YHC's spokesman Jay Stroman told Jezebel in an email that there were so many "false and outrageous" allegations in the lawsuit that it was hard to know where to start, but that YHC "emphatically insists all matters pertaining to this report were handled immediately and properly." Crapanzano, he wrote, was on a one-year nonrenewable contract; Terry was given three extensions to finish his Phd and never did.

"I believe the two disgruntled faculty members or their attorney must have convinced [Burch] to be part of their lawsuit to help promote their case," he wrote. "The two faculty members want to extort money from the College and we will not stand by and allow this to happen."

It's true that Crapanzano’s one-year contract would have expired on August 1, 2012, but she was terminated three months early on May 3, 2012. She was barred from attending graduation activities, denied access to her school email, and escorted to her office to retrieve her personal belongings by campus police nearly three months before the natural end of her one-year contract with no explanation.

Terry had informed his department chair on many occasions throughout the Spring 2012 semester that he intended to graduate in August 2012, and this graduation date was approved; it was specifically listed on annual review forms.

Both Crapanzano and Terry consistently received outstanding teaching evaluations from both their students and their supervisor, and were selected by senior student-athletes to receive “Most Outstanding Professor” awards.

YHC has until May 28th to formally respond to the case, which accuses the administration of violating Title IX by knowing and condoning a culture of pervasive sexual harassment among the Greek student groups on YHC campus, subjecting Burch to harassment on the basis of her sex, and retaliating against Crapanzano and Terry for complaining about sex discrimination.

Burch, who is currently finishing up her last week as a sophomore and plans to transfer to another college in the fall, told Jezebel she's glad she spoke out even though she's been harassed by the student body for doing so all year. "I should've been protected by my college," she said.

(Stroman told Jezebel that YHC was surprised to see her name on a lawsuit because she had never complained — her family was "well pleased with the outcome," in fact — and currently attended the school; he never mentioned her decision to transfer as quickly as she could.)

Crapanzano said she wished someone had spoken up years ago. "It just breaks my heart," she said, her voice breaking as she recalled "great kids" who were too afraid to come forward "just fall apart, fail out of class" thanks to hazing.

"It's not something you could ignore," she said. "At least I couldn't, because I was watching it happen."

If you know anything about hazing at YHC and the response/lack thereof by the administration, you can contact the lawyers here.