Improv students’ probation calls hazing into question

Vassar Improv woke an inductee in Noyes last September as part of their induction, causing a noise disturbance. The ensuing hearing by the Administration brought to light questions regarding hazing. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Vassar Improv woke an inductee in Noyes last September as part of their induction, causing a noise disturbance. The ensuing hearing by the Administration brought to light questions regarding hazing. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Vassar Improv woke an inductee in Noyes last September as part of their induction, causing a noise disturbance. The ensuing hearing by the Administration brought to light questions regarding hazing. Photo By: Sam Pianello

Does hazing happen at Vassar College? According to the 2015 Vassar College Handbook, “Hazing is any reckless or intentional act, occurring on or off campus, that produces physical, mental or emotional pain, discomfort, humiliation, embarrassment, or ridicule directed toward other students or groups (regardless of willingness to participate), that is required or expected of new members and which is not related to the mission of the team, group, or organization. [It] is a fundamental violation of human dignity and is strictly prohibited by Vassar College, the VSA, and New York State law.”

September marks a period of transition here at Vassar. As freshmen arrive, many pre-existing teams, organizations and groups on campus begin to welcome in new members. Often, this welcoming is coupled with subsequent events termed anything from a literal welcoming, to appreciation, to initiation. Many of these welcomings are considered traditions by their respective groups and have been in existence for many years.

One group, Vassar College Vassar Improv, accepted three new members after a lengthy audition process. Following their decision, they carried out their yearly tradition of welcoming new members. The tradition consisted of picking up new members in the middle of the night, blindfolding them and driving them to the nearby McDonalds. According to the group, no alcohol is involved. Member Sam discussed his experience. “My favorite part of it when it was happening to me, because they had this scary halloween music going and going, and you’re just going around and you don’t really know where you are and then all of a sudden you just hear McDonalds and you’re just like ‘ooh’ cause it’s kind of funny but then you’re also like, ‘Oh what’s happening’ and you realize that it’s all just like a farce.”

That night, September 8 2014, was when all the comedy congratulations took place. One inductee, Carinn, had already been accepted by several other groups earlier in the night and had answered her door at 12:30 and 1:30 a.m. Around 2 a.m., Vassar Improv came to her door dressed in elaborate costumes. In an interview, Carinn expressed that she knew what was happening, “I had the other two acceptances and recognized [the members] because I had been to two previous auditions with them.” The group, including members Sarah and Sam, blindfolded Carinn and led her down the stairs. “It was great because they were yelling and like faking being aggressive but then they would laugh and say something really stupid and it was all really playful. I think that’s like the funniest.” The senior members led Carinn and her fellow inductees to a car where they began listening to oscillating genres of music.

Before leaving the Vassar campus, the group drove to pick up their second inductee at Noyes. After picking up the member, they were stopped by several security guards to which Sam replied, “Oh its fine this is for improv. We’re just a comedy group.” According to Sam, the guards took down their 999 numbers and claimed that they were fine to keep going as long as the inductees knew what was happening and everyone was safe. As Sarah said, “So he saw what was happening and let us continue to do it.”

The group proceeded to the TA’s to pick up their last new member. They then headed off campus. The group did not know McDonalds was under renovation at the time and thus closed. Several members noticed that they were again being followed by two security cars. “Apparently that’s what tipped off the security guards because they were like ‘wait a minute, there is no McDonalds,’” explained Sam in a humorous tone. The group pulled into a parking lot at nearby Dollar Tree. When stopped, they explained to the officers that they were inducting their new members into Improv.

According to Sarah, security then informed them that the police had gotten a call about the group and were looking for them to make sure they were ok. While talking to the police, Sam claimed he was told that multiple calls had been placed and somebody called the police regarding their “abduction” of one of their new members in Noyes. Sam expressed his dismay stating, “Not only did several people in Noyes feel threatened enough to call security but one of them felt threatened enough to call the police, which was awful.” The exact number of calls made was never made clear to the group.

The official report from security via Acting Director Kim Squillace stated the incident’s “victim” was a “distraught” member of the Vassar community who had heard noise that sounded like fighting coming from outside the building. “Once the person(s) exited the building, we were informed that there was disturbance outside near a car. It was conveyed to our dispatcher that people were ‘yelling to get on the ground and telling someone not to look at them, to look away and close their eyes.’ At that time the ‘incident sounded like it could be a robbery in progress or an equally severe incident.’ The Town of Poughkeepsie Police were immediately contacted and responded.” Kim continued, “This incident affected at least one community member fearing that someone’s life was in grave danger, the Safety & Security officers responded to what appeared to be a very serious situation. The Town Police officers explained to one of the students involved how dangerous this situation could have been for them had they arrived when this was in progress.”

Immediately afterwards, the members realized the severity of the situation and all went independently to Associate Director of Residential Life Rich Horowitz to explain what happened from their perspective and apologize for the disruption. Horowitz serves in the role of investigative person and is responsible for gathering information about these incidents. In instances like this, he will reach out to those involved and ask them to meet with him so he can gather the necessary information. “The ultimate goal is to consolidate all of the information from all of the witnesses into one final set of investigation notes to provide to the panel,” he added.

This panel became the next step in the process for Vassar Improv. For Sarah, who was abroad and had only been visiting for auditions, this proved especially difficult. The event occurred the last night she was there. At the time she did not realize the extent of its severity and was informed later about the meetings with Rich and the eventual panel with Dean of Students DB Brown.

Shira commented further, questioning why this case, this decision had come to a panel over others. “If this is hazing and this is like hurting people, then doesn’t that imply that all of these years of improv doing this this exact same way, that this has been going on without being punished and that makes me wonder about the role of the police cause, is Vassar saying that regardless of the police, ‘had we known that ten years ago kids were being pulled out of their rooms and brought to get chicken nuggets that that also was hazing?’ And if that’s a priority, then why aren’t they doing anything active about it instead of like waiting weeks after something like this happens to be like ‘oh let’s get em’ and not explore what’s going on in the sports teams or anything?”

Sarah frustratingly challenged the handbook’s definition of hazing: “They mention like very specific feelings that you must have. Like feeling threatened and endangered. And then in Rich Horowitz’s report it said that none of the victims felt and then quoted those words in the definition, so how were they hazed if they didn’t feel any of the things literally in the definition?” The group suggested that perhaps the administration was attempting to set a precedent for future hazing cases. Sam added, “I hate that this is going to be down on the record. And of course 20 years from now the record is gonna be like a group hazed some kids and they only got probation… so like it’s not helping anybody. It hasn’t helped us.” In the end, the group was charged with disturbing the peace, which they owned up to, as well as hazing and endangerment. The explanation for the third charge, according to what the members of Vassar Improv believed was communicated to them, was that a police officer could have overreacted and held them at gunpoint. The punishments ranged from probation to expulsion.

The conduction of the hearings themselves also proved quite problematic for the group.They mentioned that it was not clear whether the security officers who had interacted with them had been interviewed. Rich Horowitz confirmed this to an extent, explaining, “Normally security officers are not interviewed because the information that they have to offer is offered within the security report.” Sarah expressed how this may be problematic. “I mean in my argument I was like, ‘We were stopped once and they let us continue on like they said it was fine. They stopped us again and even when the police were after us they still let us continue let us get back in the car and keep going. So how is that possible that three separate security guards all came to the conclusion that we were fine, we were safe and then afterwards they said we were not being safe and they just didn’t, didn’t get that at all.’”

The group’s expedition was deemed an unauthorized road trip. Sam elaborated on why he felt this term was problematic. “They had some very specific qualifications for what makes an unauthorized road trip and that’s like subcategories of hazing which I think is one of the things they were saying like this is hazing because you took an unauthorized road trip… It’s like the same thing if you were taking a group of friends out to dinner or something, right? Like just last night we had the same number of people and we went to a Mexican restaurant off campus. Is that an unauthorized road trip and how much are you restricting students’ freedoms then if you’re saying that?” In the end, the students were charged with probation, meaning, among other things, that they were penalized for housing next year.

Dean Brown, along with Horowitz and other administrators stressed that for confidentiality purposes, they could not speak to the specifics of this incident. However, they were happy to comment on aspects of hazing in general. Brown was concise regarding his definition of the term. “Actually, the definitions of hazing in our College Regulations are pretty specific…not really gray. However, I think at Vassar some students don’t see their ‘traditions,’ ‘culture,’ or ‘initiations’ as hazing, even though they meet the definition of the term.”

Brown explained that for all sections of the College Regulations there are sanction parameters that set the minimum and maximum sanctions for all violations. The exact sanction is dependent on a number of parameters that include severity and impact on the community. He stressed that Vassar’s definition of hazing is in line with other definitions across the country and close to NCAA definitions. This definition was added to College Regulations by the Office of Accessibility and Equal Opportunity after consultation with legal advisors. Regardless of how often it happens at Vassar, Brown feels that any hazing is a problem. In regards to the actual policy here at Vassar, Brown contended, “I don’t think the policy is the issue. I think there is a need for additional educational programming to help students understand that their ‘initiations’ may actually involve hazing. I think many of our students think hazing is something that only happens at other, bigger, schools.”

Still, many in the Vassar community feel that the term ‘hazing’ is not completely set in stone. The Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC) is representative of the Student Athlete body on campus and is in the process of putting together a comprehensive student-athlete anti-hazing pledge entitled “The Gray Zone” through its newly formed hazing committee. The policy draws from the existing hazing stipulations according to the student handbook. Luc Amodio ‘15 heads the committee along with Assistant Women’s Volleyball coach Antonia Suite, Assistant Athletic Director Danielle Turner, Keith Sneddon of Sports Info, Assistant Women’s Basketball coach Caroline Crampton and student-athletes Lucy Brainerd ‘16 and Lizzy Balter ‘15. Amodio commented on the need for this comprehensive pledge. “The hard thing about hazing is that because of the social context of it its hard to say what is hazing and isn’t hazing. Like is someone feeling pressured into doing something or are they doing it because they want to do it. And that’s what the grey zone is. They might find it funny, alumni might find it funny but its hazing then its bad. We have to be more aware. One of the things we’re working on putting together are hazing guidelines.”

As Acting Athletic Director Kim Culligan confirmed, this policy is mainly constructive and preventative. “I firmly believe that education is the key component along with a broadened awareness of what constitutes hazing. We want to stop it before it starts. Once individuals realize that the safety of all student-athletes is the core of any policy and especially this one, they can help each other to keep their fellow student-athletes safe. Many people simply are not aware what constitutes an act of hazing,” she elaborated. This would help student-athletes and coaches work together to build new traditions. According to Culligan, “[These would be traditions of] respect and dignity, pride in each team which will create a positive and shared experience among all for the good of the athletics program. Everyone in the program should feel safe, respected and special and know that they are critical to the success of the team, the Athletics & PE Department and Vassar College as a whole.”

Despite this progress in athletics, SAAC’s pledge would not extend beyond the realm of athletics. Culligan and Dean Brown confirmed this notion. However, SAAC’s model does signify an attempt at a more comprehensive approach that garners input from more than just the administration. Culligan explained, “The best part of how this policy was developed and the inclusion of student-athletes on the committee is that they (the committee) and not the administration have determined the Vassar College Athletics definition of hazing as well as any punitive actions. Following the guidelines and directives they have established make it a transparent and easier process to follow for the administration.”

Vassar Improv never quite knew where they stood in their own case. They spoke to a lack of transparency on the part of the administration, expressing its harsh, brief explanations in a case where they felt remorse, expressed honesty and worked to comply in a situation they felt, with a more thorough investigation, could have been avoided.

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