They just wanted to belong.That’s why seven Virginia State University freshmen endured a week of beatings and other ritual hazing.
Despite a VSU ban on such harsh practices, the seven willingly accepted the treatment as part of their initiation into an off-campus social club called Men of Honor — named for the 2000 movie about Carl Brashear, the Navy’s first Black diver. Everything would go horribly wrong after the eager pledges were handed their final test: To walk across a usually calm, narrow, five-foot deep stretch of the Appomattox River near the campus.
Do that and they would be in, the pledges later said they were told by James A. Mackey Sr. Mackey, owner of Mac’s Grill, an Ettrick restaurant two blocks from the campus that served as club headquarters, and the other club members, including several VSU students who had recruited them. It would be a wet walk in the park, they were told.The water would only be chest high, at most, they were told.There were rocks to walk on, they were told.Only cowards would back down, they were told, not real “Men of Honor.”
So the seven initiates who had come through the club’s “hellweek” accepted the dare — a decision the five survivors canonly regret after tragedy struck.They walked into the river in a line early Saturday, April 20, just past midnight. They were undaunted by pelting rain, a slashing cold wind and near pitch-black conditions.They went in near the bridge connecting Petersburg to VSU and Ettrick without a safety line, life jackets or supervision.
In the blink of an eye, they found themselves fighting for their lives in a raging current whipped up by the stormy weather.The high-risk adventure turned into a tragic disaster when the pledges tried to make it back to the riverbank. Five somehow made it ashore, but two were swept away: Marvell Edmondson,19, of Portsmouth, and Jauwan Holmes, 19, of Newport News.
“Five feet forward, there were no more rocks,” Christian Cavazos, one of the survivors, said later. “Instantly, it was swim or go under.”
Authorities were called, but it was quickly evident that Edmondson and Holmes, both popular students with bright prospects, would not be found alive. Once again, hazing had killed — a prime example of why VSU and other schools are doing everything they can to stamp out dangerous initiation practices that once were a hallmark of fraternal groups and to bar organizations that disregard anti-hazing policies.
The stunned campus remains in mourning as divers and boats searched for the remains of the two students. Edmondson’s body was recovered Monday after the tragedy, and Holmes’ body was founded two days later on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Chesterfield County Police charged Mackey and three other members of Men of Honor with five misdemeanor charges of violating a state law against hazing, defined as the reckless or intentional endangerment of a student’s health or safety. According to police, two of those charged are enrolled at VSU, Eriq K. Benson, 19, of Quinton, and Cory D. Baytop, 26, also of Newport News.
For Cavazos and the other survivors, the tragedy has only been compounded by the knowledge that they were trying to join a rogue club. According to VSU, Men of Honor was not connected in any way to the university and had no permission to use the school’s logo on information sheets it distributed to students as part of its recruitment drive.
VSU has a strict policy against hazing, and that policy is enforced, according to university spokesman Thomas Reed.The school requires initiates and members of sanctioned Greek organizations to undergo two to three hours of training on hazing every semester, he said. But eliminating dangerous hazing has proven difficult as this terrible incident and a separate incident last year involving VSU students show.
Last year’s incident involved the campus chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, which last fall moved its initiation of new pledges to Petersburg to avoid the campus ban.Two weeks ago, Petersburg Police arrested four members and charged them with misdemeanor hazing between August and November 2012. Those charged included the president of the VSU Student Government Association, Brandon Randleman, 22.
The charges stem from police allegations that the fraternity members injured pledges. According to police and a lawsuit,one of the pledges needed skin grafts to repair the injuries he suffered from hazing and was so traumatized he dropped out of VSU.