Hazing Death: A Mom Tells Her Son’s Tragic Story

As the mother of a son who would now be 27 years old, I am writing to share my son’s story. Harrison was 19 when he was a sophomore in college attending school on an academic and golf scholarship. My purpose is to share his tragedy to reach other parents and families that may not know about the potential dangers of hazing when joining a fraternity. If I can reach one person, this is time well spent and no parent should send their child off to college and not have them return home.

Hazing in college organizations

The senseless hazing has to end. Harrison didn’t know, I didn’t know, we didn’t know about this abusive activity that can impact individuals physically and emotionally when they are wanting to belong to a group such as a fraternity, sorority, sports team, music club etc.

HarrisonKowiakI clearly remember when Harrison brought it up to me when he wanted to join a fraternity. I asked him why and he said it would be a great way to make contacts and the guys on the golf team were graduating and it would be a way for him to carry on the legacy for the golf team and maybe be President of the fraternity chapter.

That peer pressure is strong and the students need to say no when they no longer want to participate. Teach your children that, teach them to always have open communication with you, and teach them to say no when it doesn’t feel right in their gut.

I recall in November 2008, my husband, daughter and I were looking forward to meeting Harrison in Atlanta to be together for Thanksgiving holiday. This was a good central location. Between Florida, where we lived, and North Carolina, where he was attending college.  And just a month prior, I was with Harrison during Parent’s weekend and we had a great weekend exploring Ashville, NC. Neither of us had ever been there and it was fun sightseeing and enjoying the local cuisine. He was just getting into photography and was so happy “clicking” away. What fond memories I have and I am so grateful I had that time with him…time to bond with my son.

As I will never forget the events of that awful evening, the pit in my stomach is coming back again as I write this. But this is information I must share with others that just don’t know.

It was around 11 pm in November 2008 and it was the call no parent ever wants to receive. My son was in the emergency room at a local regional hospital near campus and he was going to be airlifted to the trauma center in Charlotte, NC. I was told Harrison was playing football on campus and landed badly and hit his head. This story had changed a few times until we learned the truth.

The ER doctor said we should make our plans to fly to Charlotte and, not knowing all the details, I flew up on the first flight that morning and my husband stayed with our daughter in Tampa. We didn’t want to alarm her until we knew what we were dealing with.

As it turned out, when I arrived at the hospital, I saw Harrison already unconscious and with tubes hooked up to his body and I knew this was serious. I called my husband and he and my daughter, who was 10 at the time, took the next flight to Charlotte so we could all be together. It was gut wrenching because we had to make the difficult decision to take our son off of life support. We all said our goodbyes to our dear son Harrison and his sister, although only 10, wanted to say good-bye and hold his hand.

Going back to Harrison’s dorm room was difficult, seeing all of his personal belongings. And then the truth came out. There was a knock at the door. We were told by Harrison’s fraternity big brother and fellow pledge that they were all off campus and they were doing a “team building” activity.   This is when I suspected there was something more to the story.

Harrison had been in an activity called “bulldogging.” When a pledge is trying to be part of a fraternity, there is an initiation and “hell week” is the most intense of the pledging period. We didn’t know this and Harrison, being a pledge, was told to wear light-colored clothing. He and the other pledge were told to run across the dark field, the only light was the light from the moon or the headlights from the parked cars. This field was 20 miles off campus and they had to run the “gauntlet” from one end of the field to the other and touch the “sacred rock.”

The two pledges were not told they would be tackled from out of nowhere by fraternity brothers who wore dark-colored clothing, some who played football and weighed over 220 pounds. You see, Harrison was 6’2” and lean and played golf, he never played tackle sports. He was hit one too many times and hit his head on the frozen field and that was the chain of events leading to my son’s untimely and senseless death.

As parents, you set your children up for success. We are there to support them and pick them up when they fall and we didn’t know these traditions occurred and still do today.

Hazing comes in many forms and the mentality of “we went through it so you must too” continues to plague some students today. We want to see our sons, daughters and loved ones graduate from college, we want to see them get their first job, marry, have children…all these life moments we won’t experience with Harrison, we had 19 years with him.

The first 12-18 months, I was a walking zombie. I put on the “face” when I want back to work and, of course, I needed to be there for my young daughter and be a mom. My husband and I were grieving in different ways and I hurt so much I would ache and feel the room spiraling out of control with that sick nausea feeling of no self-control. Sleeping was difficult and I cried and cried, mostly at night to shield my pain from my family.

Now, I am doing better, although not a day goes by that I don’t think of my son. We were and are a very close family and spoke or texted every day when he was away from home in school.

I know I don’t want Harrison to have died so senselessly and, if I could prevent another family from enduring the loss we suffered, then I want to try and educate other families. I choose now to speak to college students and discuss the dangers of hazing and share Harrison’s story and the various activities he participated in to be part of a fraternity.

People say he had a choice. As I mentioned earlier, peer pressure is powerful. There has to be accountability with the university and the local chapter and national headquarters. No one should turn a blind eye and there has to be check and balances in place and it needs to be enforced over and over again.

When I speak to the college students, I challenge them to “do the right thing” and to do the “mom test”…is the activity you are doing or seeing one that your mom would approve of??

What is the solution? I would say get rid of pledging. Instead of having a two plus tiered approach, such as brother and pledge or pledge master and pledge, make it more peer-to-peer or a mentor relationship in a positive and healthy way.

I am not against fraternities and sororities. Through my speaking engagements, I have met some outstanding individuals and know many of them give back to the community and participate in philanthropic work. It is the hazing I don’t condone. Hazing is barbaric and dangerous and can lead to death. Sadly, I know this all too well now.

As my daughter is about to start her journey in college at UCLA, yes, I will worry about her and I know my husband and I have done our best to ensure her utmost safety and happiness and academic success. We have set her up as best we could with the “necessary tools” and mindset when she leaves our nest.

Love your children and tell them you do…I know we did with ours and you never know when that may be the last time you say those precious words.

For Parents With Questions About Hazing in Campus Organizations

According this story on hazing in The New York Times

HAZING is common on American campuses. A 2008 University of Maine study concluded that 55 percent of students who join fraternities, sororities, sports teams or other student groups experience it….Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four books on the subject, says that as long as there have been universities, there has been hazing: in 1657, two Harvard upperclassmen were fined and suspended for hazing.

Have frequent conversations and check in with your child when they are away from home. Ask questions and be engaged.

Look on the school website to see what information is given concerning recruitment and pledging in campus organizations.

Reach out to the university through the Dean of Students Office with any concerns or questions.

Research the name of organizations your college student is considering joining  to see if there are any records of hazing, sexual assault, alcohol abuse, etc. related incidents.

If a group is part of a national organization, you can also contact the headquarters with any questions or concerns.

Websites for information on hazing are HazingPrevention.org, StopHazing.org, and 32NationalCampusSafetyInitiative.org.


When Joining a Sorority is Part of the College Decision

Go Ahead and Call Your College Freshman 

Binge Drinking: Unique Dangers to the Teen Brain 

Tampa Bay Times coverage

photo LianneLianne Kowiak is a wife and mother to her husband Brian and daughter, Emma, in Tampa, Florida. She speaks on the dangers of hazing and shares the Harrison Kowiak story. She has spoken at colleges and national and regional Greek Life conferences and has appeared on CNN, Huffington Post Live, The Security Brief, and had her writings published in HazingPrevention.org and Bloomberg News. She can be contacted at Lkowiak@hotmail.com

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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