Last Friday, I attended a seminar in which one of the speakers was U.P. Diliman Chancellor Dr. Sergio Cao. As Chancellor, Dr. Cao is the chief administrator for the flagship campus of the U.P. system in Quezon City. He spoke about the U.P. experience on student discipline and other related issues. The impression I got was that things were pretty much under control as far as U.P. fraternities were concerned. I guess I was wrong.
A little after midnight of Monday, August 27, three cars drove up to the emergency room of the Veterans Memorial Medical Center and unloaded the badly beaten body of Cris Anthony Mendez, a graduating student of the National College of Public Administration and Governance. He was pronounced dead minutes later. He had had contusions on his extremities, particularly the arms and back of his legs, the tell-tale signs of his having undergone fraternity initiation rites. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported:
“A police investigator told the INQUIRER that they have already identified a student who is suspected of having recruited Mendez into the U.P. Sigma Rho fraternity.”
This is not the first time a U.P. student has died while undergoing frat initiations and, I fear, it won’t be the last.
There are a number of factors responsible for this tragic state of affairs.
A frat (and sorority) culture is deeply woven into the fabric of the political and social life of U.P. There are dozens of recognized fraternities and sororities in Diliman and other campuses within the U.P. system. There are Greek-letter societies, regional organizations and professional groups, usually practicing secret initiations and rites which, on occasion, can turn ugly and brutal.
The movers and shakers on campus are oftentimes fratmen. The administrators, up to and including the Deans and, now and again, the President, are often affiliated with this fraternity or that. The alumni are fiercely loyal to their frats and maintain ties long after they have left the university. U.P. frats therefore wield considerable clout beyond the geographical boundaries of the school. Their members occupy influential positions in both the public and private sectors. For instance, at least nine (9) of the 23-man Philippine Senate are known to be frat or sorority members from U.P. (Villar, Honasan, Arroyo, Pangilinan, Gordon, Escudero , Angara, Ponce-Enrile and Pia Cayetano). Others have a father, sibling or spouse who are fratmen (Roxas, Defensor-Santiago).The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is a U.P. fratman.
There are many attractions to joining a frat, despite the well-publicized dangers. A large and diverse campus like U.P. Dilman, with a student population of approximately 25,000, can be intimidating, specially to new students far from home. Frats provide a sense of security, belonging and some stature, however dubious , to its members. Many also boast of a formidable network of alumni which one can tap into after graduation.
But fraternity initiations, as Filipinos understand them, are risky undertakings. Violence is a given. Paddling or the hitting of the legs, usually the back of the thighs, with a wooden paddle, is commonplace. Everyday items, like leather belts and cigarettes, can become instruments of pain. Added to this is the psychological torture and, at times, social humiliation, inflicted on applicants or “neophytes” .
Most, if not all, frats have safeguards during the initiation process to minimize the possibility of serious injury or death. But things have a way of getting out of hand.
First, persons have varying thresholds when subjected to this kind of physical abuse. Even if frats follow a certain “formula” as to the number of paddles or blows that a neophyte should receive , the capability to take it varies from individual to individual. Some are just constitutionally stronger than others. And you can’t tell who can withstand it until they are actually under initiation. Some of the biggest and strongest-looking jocks immediately collapse while the geeks are steadfast.
Secondly, the process is inherently anarchic. While there are undoubtedly attempts to regulate and structure the initiation process, the rule, as far as some fratmen are concerned, seems to be “anything goes”. During the period of initiation, which can last from one day to an entire semester (and even one whole school year), the applicants are fair game to the sadists and sickos who infest, in varying degrees, many frats. Aside from the standard “sessions” per frat practice or tradition, the initiates can be kidnapped (“dukot” in frat parlance) by a band of brods and made to undergo special ordeals.
Thus, a neophyte is an accident waiting to happen.