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Local youth details hazing at Citadel

Special Photo: Tyler Phillips on Parents Day at The Citadel in 2009.

Special Photo: Tyler Phillips on Parents Day at The Citadel in 2009.

COVINGTON -- An honor student and Eagle Scout, Tyler Phillips entered The Citadel in August 2009 determined to excel in college and parlay that experience into a successful military career.

Nine months later, Phillips emerged from the military college of South Carolina angry and paranoid, a stranger to the parents with whom he once shared a tight bond, his grade-point average barely above 1.0, and his body nearly 70 pounds lighter.

Phillips has been recognized on the local level for his volunteerism and received national accolades for his involvement in the Naval Sea Cadet Corps. Neither Phillips nor his parents, Tony and Donna, ever doubted that he could handle the rigors of life at The Citadel. Having traveled all over the world to work on naval bases as a teenager with the Naval Sea Cadet Corps, he had first-hand knowledge of military life.

"We never had an inkling that he would struggle. This is the environment in which he thrived," Donna Phillips said.

But Phillips wasn't prepared to be daily hazed and harassed, beaten, and threatened with death, all of which he says he endured during his freshman year.

Phillips has filed a lawsuit alleging assault and battery and breach of contract by The Citadel. He is telling his story because he says he wants to change a pointless culture of hazing that he says has nothing to do with military training and that he and his parents allege takes place with full knowledge of the school administration.

"Hazing is one thing. The cover-up is the bigger crime," said dad Tony Phillips.

The brutality against Tyler Phillips began, he said, after he refused orders from upperclassmen to haze another cadet. As a freshman, "You're a pawn. Upperclassmen tell you what to do," he said.

Phillips said there is little adult supervision in the barracks. Two tactical officers were in charge of about 300 cadets in his company. The result is that the upperclassmen rule the school, and the Code of Silence, a well-known but unspoken rule, means than you don't talk about what happens in your company, no matter what.

"Hazing goes on throughout all companies at The Citadel. There are guys coming into class with black eyes and you ask, 'Are you OK?' and they say, 'Can't talk about it.'"

Phillips said freshmen -- called knobs because of their shaved heads that resemble doorknobs -- are made aware of the code early on at a midnight meeting held by upperclassmen.

"What happens there stays there. It's kind of like Las Vegas," he said.

Upperclassmen use intimidation and threats of bodily harm to get freshmen to assault each other and avoid potential punishment themselves, he said.

According to Phillips, after he refused to haze another freshman, he became a target. His decision to join the cheerleading team on the advice of his tactical officer only made things worse.

Phillips says he suffered daily abuse, including being kicked and hit in the back with broomsticks and rifle butts, called "faggot" and ordered to "skip like a girl" while holding hands with another cadet. His room was trashed regularly, his computer hacked into and homework and class notes destroyed, along with his uniform and boots. He alleges he was prevented from going to class by upperclassmen and even denied access to medical care.

Phillips said cadets in charge of his barracks prevented him from going to the infirmary during a bout with pneumonia when he was running a fever of 102 degrees. His illness progressed to the point that once he did get to the infirmary, he was kept there for treatment for two weeks, causing him to miss more class time.

Phillips' parents said they noticed right away that something was wrong during visits and phone conversations with their son.

"His personality seemed to change drastically," Donna Phillips said, adding that her son seemed angry and tense, began cursing and was visibly agitated on drives back to The Citadel following home visits, asking his parents to drop him off two blocks from the school so the other students wouldn't see them.

Between the start of the semester in August and Thanksgiving break, a little more than three months, Phillips dropped from his healthy weight of 200 pounds to under 140 pounds.

Things came to a head when, in December 2009, six knobs came into Phillips' room, ordered his roommate to leave, threatened to kill him and, armed with lighter fluid, threatened to set him on fire, he said.

Phillips' parents said they were notified of the incident after another cadet's parents called and reported it to them. They immediately began contacting school administrators.

Dawes Cooke, The Citadel's attorney, told the Citizen that physical abuse was not initially reported. But letters sent by the Phillips to administrators in December 2009 allege physical contact and state they are concerned for their son's safety.

"We were in constant contact with the administration. We got nowhere," Donna Phillips said.

Cooke said that's not so. He said administrators took the reports seriously and punished the offenders in the form of "tours," which involve marching while carrying a rifle for an hour in their spare time. Cooke said they were disciplined with between 80 and 120 tours, given demerits and some were transferred from their companies. But, he said Phillips "never complained of being physically assaulted. Even so, he was still advised of his ability to report to the police if he thought a crime was committed and he declined to do that."

Phillips acknowledges that he kept the gravity of the assaults secret out of fear.

"If I had gone to the police, I would have probably wound up in ICU or dead," he said.

Phillips said upperclassmen keep watch over who goes into the offices of tactical and sexual harassment officers to keep tabs on who may be ratting someone out.

Even details of letters sent by his parents to administrators appear to have been leaked, he said.

On one occasion, Donna Phillips was advised to send a letter outlining her concerns to Citadel President John Rosa. The Navy ROTC official who advised her also requested an email copy, she said. Before her certified letters were delivered, Phillips was confronted and threatened by upperclassmen, who told him his "mommy" had written the school and nothing had better come of the letter. Phillips himself was not aware of the letter until he was confronted.

The alleged offenders were also provided with copies of a letter Phillips wrote detailing the abuse prior to a hearing, and were allowed to interject during his testimony, he said. Phillips said he was not allowed to have his parents attend the hearing, though the parents of another cadet were present. He said he was alone in the room with six freshmen and two upperclassmen he accused of hazing and a couple of tactical officers.

"It was not a safe environment," he said. As a result, "I gave details enough not to be lying, but it was watered down."

Despite the trauma he suffered, Phillips was determined to continue on at The Citadel."It was a pride thing, to show them I'd made it through," he said.

But his parents, frightened by the rage they saw building in their son, said enough.

"I was not only afraid for our welfare but I was afraid for the other cadets. He had that much anger. He was going to hurt somebody,"dad Tony said.

Phillips is now back home in Covington and plans to attend college classes in hopes of raising his GPA. He is in therapy and dealing with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A Citadel ombudsman wrote a letter of recommendation attributing Phillips' academic failures as being "directly related to being the victim of mistreatment and harassment by a group of immature and misguided cadets at our school." The letter goes on to say that Phillips deserves a second chance to succeed in college and describes him as "a fine young man with many positive characteristics."

A Naval investigation into Phillips' allegations confirmed that he had been hazed and the Navy has agreed to transfer his scholarship to another institution if he is accepted. The investigation also concluded that the Navy ROTC acted immediately to secure Phillips' safety after learning of the hazing and officials in charge said they were disappointed that Phillips did not report the matter sooner.

Phillips said he decided to file the lawsuit to try to initiate change to a useless, demoralizing practice at The Citadel.

"If you talk to anybody in the military, they'll tell you they rely on their training. Training is not getting hit with broomsticks, jabbed in the face with pencils, beaten with a rifle until it breaks. That's not going to help you. Less than 10 percent go on to the military (after leaving The Citadel)," he said. "It's kind of hard to see how hazing is going to help out with being a doctor or lawyer, and it's not even going to help out with the military."

Phillips said most of the administration are Citadel alumni who turn a blind eye to hazing, despite a zero tolerance school policy.

Even parents are intimidated to keep quiet so as not to make matters worse for their child.

"Parents have fear instilled into them. Don't draw attention to yourself or your knob," Donna Phillips said.

A letter sent to parents by President Rosa in December 2009 makes light of "tall tales" they might hear about the rigors of life at The Citadel from their children during the holiday break.

"Some cadets may even use these tales to make a case for leaving The Citadel. Please listen to your cadet, but help them to appreciate their accomplishment in completing the first semester and encourage them to return," the letter states.

The Phillips' say they've heard from many families with similar stories of hazing. Whether those families are willing to go public remains to be seen, but they hope their story will encourage more discussion and bring about positive change.

"They took a part of him that will never come back. Fortunately, we got to bring Tyler home," his mother said. "He was beaten, he was bruised and battered, but we got to bring him home. My hope and prayer for Tyler is that he won't hide these things. He'll process it and it will make him a better man. We've told him, don't let it make you bitter, let it make you better and stand up for people that are being hurt."

Phillips still wants to join the Navy. He said he'll use his experience at The Citadel as a lesson hard learned about how not to treat subordinates.

The Citadel is now under fire -- a lawsuit has been filed alleging negligence in reporting an alleged sexual assault that took place at a summer camp run by the school and The Post and Courier, a South Carolina newspaper, has detailed other instances of hazing, even running a photo of a cadet with holes in his forehead from being stabbed with a pencil. SLED, South Carolina's version of the GBI, recently announced it is investigating Phillips' claims, along with other allegations of hazing at The Citadel.

Phillips is hopeful the publicity will bring attention to rampant abuse that he says is not only tolerated but a source of pride for Citadel alumni.

Asked if he thinks it's really possible to effect change at a 170-year-old military college steeped in tradition, Phillips doesn't hesitate. "Everything's possible," he says.

Comments

will 2 years, 7 months ago

I also went to the Citadel and graduated with honors. This child failed when he would not follow the orders of an upperclassmen. This is a part of all military institutions and the branches of the military. This makes a Cadet a much stronger man and it builds unity. This child wants to join the Navy, I hope he can man up because Basic Training will be the same way and when they find out he filed a lawsuit against the Citadel they will be all over him. The Citadel is a great school it made me the man I am today. If a person is tough enough to make it out of their freshman year they have it made as long as their grades are in place. People need to understand this is all part of the process that makes our military the best in the world. This child should look into a career outside the military. This lawsuit will follow this child and it will also cost him a military career. Lawsuits are for weak people who cant stand on the two feet God put under them.

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Eaglescout2 2 years, 7 months ago

Since only 10% of citadel graduates go into the military I think that speaks wonders of what a turnoff the citadel is to the military. I congratulate you on graduating from there but guess what? No one really cares because this institution has allowed hazing since the beginning of time.

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will 2 years, 7 months ago

Eaglescout2, I hate to break it to you this way but hazing goes on at all military institutions. It goes on in all types of settings, frat houses, boy scouts, football teams, and many more. Some people take it to a higher level than others and thats where it gets out of hand.

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Iknowyouarelying 2 years, 7 months ago

Will, I know you are lying. Are you telling me that you committed crimes over and over? What does that make you, a thug?? I would love to know what you do and what kind of career you have so I could make sure to avoid you at all cost. I probably already know you. You are the guy that stood in the back and got in that last sucker punch, not man enough to step up on your own. It is people like you that put this entire country in the situation it is in right now. You sir, are the real loser in life.

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will 2 years, 7 months ago

Im a retired consultant and the bed wetting liberals put this country where it is today. If you are not a part of the military I do not expect you to understand. All im saying is this guy should not expect a military career after this. I hope you do not know me because I associate with highly motivated people who are proud to be Americans.

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Iknowyouarelying 2 years, 7 months ago

Will, I have to agree with you on the bed wetting liberals. I do a lot of consulting work myself and deal mostly with motivated people each day. The problem in the world today is "no sense of urgency" to the employer or certain group of employees. Everybody thinks it is as simple as pushing a button to give you an answer in 5 seconds. Nobody wants to analyze the data or dig into the details of what the root cause of the problem is on a daily basis. Everyone wants a quick fix and not what is best long-term. Hopefully you were not one of the consultants that took care of the top people and destroyed companies that existed for hundreds of years, if not, you and I might not be that different. I currently have to clean up what certain consultants do now and repair all the damage to century old companies just to keep them running their daily operations where consultants (VC’s) took care of only one or two owners along the way. You are correct, the military is not for everyone and I should not have taken a cheap shot at you but it just rubs me the wrong way when people think this behavior is fine.

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Eaglescout2 2 years, 7 months ago

You sir do not understand that hazing is not tolerated anywhere. No human being should have had to put up with the abuse he did... Get a life because you wouldn't last one day there

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Iknowyouarelying 2 years, 7 months ago

EagleScout2, I am not sure if you are responding to me but if you read “all” of my post and take your time or if you can comprehend what I wrote, you will see that I am against hazing and call it a crime. Just like I stated above, nobody wants to analyze the data or dig into the details of what the root cause of the problem is on a daily basis. Everyone wants a quick fix and not what is best long-term. By your name I would hope that you were smart enough to figure that much out on your own or did you not earn your eagle scout and have daddy do it for you.

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bigmike 2 years, 7 months ago

Will- Why does enduring hazing make you a man, or prepare you for the rigors of military life? If you are enduring enemy fire and fighting for your life in a foxhole or captured by the enemy and tortured are they suddenly going to duct tape your butt cheeks together or shave your eyebrows and beat you with a pillow case full of bars of soap? Ridiculous. This is all abuse and intimidation and makes you less of a man. You earn the respect of your fellow soldiers, you don't beat it into them.

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will 2 years, 7 months ago

bigmike, You earn respect by following orders and being a man or woman that can be trusted in hostile environments, such as a war zone. By the way bigmike if you are capture by the enemy they will torture you more than you will have been hazed. Other countries do not care about the Geneva Convention. If water boarding one of our enemy combatants would save one American soldiers life we should do it, period.

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Chris 2 years, 7 months ago

This is wonderful. Will says Tyler's failure was in refusing to obey his upperclassmen, who had ordered him to haze another cadet, thereby breaking the law. The performance standard for competent and honorable officers in the military is not just to follow orders blindly. They are expected to know and respect the difference between lawful and unlawful orders. This is the difference between the Citadel and West Point. Will takes pride in hazing, waterboarding, ignoring the laws of the United States, and belittling those who have a higher standard by referring to them as children. Being tough and intimidating can be useful, but it is not enough. Tyler is showing courage in facing ridicule for holding people accountable for their dishonorable behavior. More power to him.

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will 2 years, 7 months ago

Chris, I never said I take pride in hazing, I just pointed out that it happens all around us and the reason behind hazing. As far as waterboarding like I said if it saves one American Soldiers life then I will get the water, war is not fair or fun. Its not about getting a merit badge it about destroying your enemy until they surrender. I hope this kid has a great life but I do not think its in the military, maybe im wrong time will tell.

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Chris 2 years, 7 months ago

Hi Will, I can see a distinction now that you mention it. I made an overstatement in saying you take pride in hazing, although I think your comments about making one stronger, building unity and being part of the process suggest approval if not outright support, and the comments regarding children and liberals show disregard for those Americans with differing views. I just think the Citadel would produce better officers by ensuring they comply with the laws of the U.S. We can get all the mercenaries we need from Blackwater. That is not intended as a personal dig at you or any other Citadel alumni; it is a comment on the standards of those running the place.

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will 2 years, 7 months ago

Chris, I know it sounds like I give my approval and support when it comes to hazing but I do not give my approval to hazing at all. It is one of those things that people in this country do at all levels and its not right. Unfortunate as it is hazing is a part of the process, when I say builds unity its kind of a I have your back mentality, if that makes sense. I can say this as far as liberals go, they have an anything is alright thinking process which I do not agree with at all and I feel they have messed this country up with their political correctness, sometimes people need to be told it wrong. It also drives me nuts how some liberals think thay can sit on their lazy rear ends and just look for a handout.I should not have used the word child when I talked about Tyler, I was wrong.Its just that I feel lawsuits are not the way to solve a problem. When I hear the word lawsuit I think of the lazy good for nothing people that will file a lawsuit over nothing, im not saying Tylers situation is nothing. I feel we need a loser pays approach when it comes to lawsuits and then most of them would go away. Im not against lawsuits I just think most of them are filed by deadbeat lawyers exploiting stupid people.

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Chris 2 years, 7 months ago

Hi Will, I truly appreciate your additional clarification. If we ever cross paths in person I'll buy you a drink. Some of my conservative friends make me crazy too, but our friendships are more important than whatever differences we have. And it makes for much more lively conversations than those with people I'm in full agreement with. Happy New Year to you.

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Hackman 2 years, 7 months ago

Thank God for giving us people like Cris who have IQ. 11B

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