After completing his homework on the night of Feb. 4, 2017, Penn State University sophomore and New Jersey native Timothy Piazza went to a fraternity basement, where he would take part in an alcohol-soaked pledging ritual. About 30 hours later, he was dead, having suffered multiple traumatic brain injuries, Class IV hemorrhagic shock and a lacerated spleen, incurred from at least one fall down a flight of stairs. Members of Beta Theta Pi put him on a couch and waited 12 hours before calling for help. Two days later, one of them deleted surveillance video that captured the scene.
Piazza is only the latest casualty of long-standing hazing practices at college fraternities across the country. For decades, newly independent male teenagers have engaged in life-threatening activities in order to prove their worth to upperclassmen, “brothers” who until recent years seemed free to concoct and carry out dangerous dares without consequence. (Boys will be boys, and all that, their supporters maintain.) Now, as both the frequency of such fatal incidents and outrage surrounding them have swelled, school administrations, parents, students and even fraternities are searching for answers.
In his new book “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities” (PublicAffairs), John Hechinger chronicles the ways that fraternities have failed to live up to the high ideals that they espouse. Excessive drinking — and the insensitive and dangerous behavior it can breed — has eliminated the good will, propriety, self-control and sincerity that are advocated by generations-old creeds. In fact, Hechinger says, the words provide cover.
As an example, he examines the notorious Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), founded at the University of Alabama in 1856 on such tenets as generosity and decorum (and elitism and segregation) yet recognized today for the 10 student deaths it had a hand in between 2005 and 2013, as well as its otherwise despicable displays of racism and misogyny. (To students, particularly women, “SAE” really stands for “Sexual Assault Expected.” Another well-worn nickname for the frat is “Same A–holes Everywhere.”)
The deaths constitute the greatest number of any one fraternity. During the same eight years, about 60 fatalities occurred at all others nationwide. Universities have disciplined more than 130 SAE chapters during the past five years, and 30 have been shut down, for violations of both college rules and state law. Calling itself the country’s largest fraternity, SAE has had 336,000 members since its inception, with two-thirds of them alive now. In 2014, at its height, about 15,000 undergraduates belonged to chapters on more than 230 campuses. A majority of alumni work in the financial industry, including Oklahoma oilman and investor T. Boone Pickens, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and about 3,000 others. Eliot Ness, the Prohibition agent, ironically, and writers William Faulkner and Walker Percy were SAE members, too. SAE provides a valuable career and social network for brothers as they emerge from school.
But SAE leaders know, writes Hechinger, that they are at a crossroads. “No matter its power, influence and storied history, the American college fraternity faces an existential choice. It can perpetuate the ugliest chapters of American history. Or it can turn the page and once again reflect the country’s highest aspirations.”
SAE has a lot of pages to turn. In 2013, a drunk member killed a party guest when he drove their car off a road at Washington and Lee University. Another reveler at the University of Idaho wound up frozen to death under a bridge in 2012. A freshman pledge at the University of Kansas died of alcohol poisoning in 2009 after drinking an untold number of margaritas, 12 beers and successive shots of Jack Daniel’s. An Arizona State freshman was found drowned in the Salt River 16 days after attending an SAE mixer, his blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit. In a pledging ritual, a Cornell student was tied up and blindfolded. Into his mouth fellow students poured nine cups of vodka, strawberry syrup, pieces of a sandwich, dishwashing soap, hot sauce. He passed out and was put on a couch, on his side so that he wouldn’t choke on his vomit. A janitor found him in the morning, his eyes rolled back, zip ties and duct tape strapped around his ankles, pants down to his mid-thighs. He died at the hospital.
In 2008, an 18-year-old at California Polytechnic State drank, as part of SAE’s “Brown Bag Night,” a sackful of beverages, including 48 ounces of beer, 16 ounces of an energy drink, a half-bottle each of rum and Everclear, which is 75.5 percent alcohol. He died on the dirty mattress where fraternity members put him when he passed out. An SAE pledge at the University of Texas fell from a dormitory balcony after hazing, drinking and sleep deprivation. At California State-San Marcos, an intoxicated SAE party guest was hit by a car and killed after he left the fraternity house. The same happened to another guest at Texas A&M who had left a “Jungle Crush Party.” At Southern Methodist University, a student was found dead in the SAE house from a drug overdose.
When sued, national SAE executives denied wrongdoing and maintained that hazing and underage drinking violate fraternity policy. “The national fraternity organizations sought to shift blame from themselves to the undergraduate men, whose families would be forced to pay for legal defense and settlements or judgments,” writes Hechinger.
In addition to the deaths, countless charges of sexual abuse and assault have been leveled at SAE nationwide. Reports of torturous treatment, such as those requiring Dartmouth recruits to swim in kiddie pools of urine, feces, semen and rotted food, are rampant. And, in a widely shared video that sparked national condemnation in 2011, millions of viewers watched as University of Oklahoma freshmen injected slurs and epithets against African-Americans into the SAE pledge song while en route to a formal party. A smattering of black students have joined the historically white group on certain campuses, though the founding Alabama chapter has not admitted any in 150 years.
“One African-American made his way through the halls,” writes Hechinger. “In SAE’s lexicon, he was known as the ‘butler,’ but he was really a custodian.”
David Boren, University of Oklahoma president and former governor and senator, shut the fraternity and severed all ties with SAE when he learned of the video. He ordered all members to remove their belongings from the house and expelled the two freshmen for violating civil rights law. His swift and decisive action was uncharacteristic of school administrations, though, which are often stuck in an ambivalent push-pull relationship with the fraternity system, wanting to promote freedom, safety and diversity but also benefit financially from the chapters’ presence. (The fraternities pay for the building of houses and draw students looking for the social structure they provide.)
Hazing, of course, isn’t a modern invention. In 1873, at Cornell, a student named Mortimer Leggett was blindfolded, taken into the night and left to find his way home while pledging Kappa Alpha Society, the country’s first “social” fraternity. Leggett fell off a cliff and died, becoming one of the first notable college hazing deaths, according to Hechinger. Hazing has even deeper roots, emerging first in ancient Greece and medieval Europe. Later, at England’s boarding schools, it took the form of forced servitude, or “fagging,” and was exported to the colonies, where “freshman laws” were popularized in the 17th and 18th centuries at Harvard and elsewhere. Following the Civil War, soldiers brought harsher military-style hazing to campuses, where it became institutionalized as “pledging,” writes Hechinger.
“In the word itself, and in the official literature, the practice has the ring of promise, of fealty to a sacred tradition of honor and brotherhood. A teenager earns his way into the group by learning its history and traditions, as well as respect for his elders.”
But, eventually, doing errands for upperclassmen “devolved into the orgy of abuse so familiar today.”
After a period of Vietnam-era disinterest in fraternities, hazing became more wanton and dangerous. What began centuries ago as sincere brotherhoods “now embody many of the unresolved conflicts still plaguing the United States,” writes Hechinger.
He says, though, that incremental change is possible, citing support for campus-wide policies that limit drinking to that of the average non-fraternity student and charge for drinking, with payment made to a third party. One tactic is to prohibit alcohol from house premises completely, which has been done in some cases. “This means that they can’t — or it’s hard for them — to throw a party that people will see. It would be clear that they are in violation, and they would be shut down. This has reduced drinking, but it is not always followed.” If fraternities are closed, for any reason, they may sometimes come back to life as dry incarnations of their former selves, decreasing their insurance rates in the process.
Also, requiring members’ parents to buy liability insurance and fraternities to report disciplinary histories and racial breakdowns can combat the secretiveness that has shrouded a lot of bad behavior, Hechinger claims. “If fraternities were as candid as possible, then colleges could view this as a public health problem and go after it.” He reports that the North-American Interfraternity Conference, under new leadership, is committed to such change. Also, organizations such as the Hazing Prevention Consortium are forming initiatives with individual colleges to develop campus strategies.
In 2014, following the rash of deaths and waves of lawsuits, SAE formed its own strategy: The fraternity abandoned its tradition of pledging, and the “hell” weeks that accompany it. Prospective members are now offered a “bid” instead and may choose to join. “They were faced with a loss of insurance and going out of business,” says Hechinger, “and they were tired of getting calls of incidents in the middle of the night.” Since then, the fraternity has not been involved in another death related to hazing or drinking, and their insurance claims have gone down, too.
SAE’s general counsel reports that drinking is still a problem, says Hechinger, but that there are fewer hospitalizations and fewer reports of pledge-inspired abuse.
But even when fraternities ban alcohol, it doesn’t always solve the problem. “One of the sad parts of the Penn State case is that that chapter was considered a model. It was supposed to be a dry house,” says Hechinger. “I think that there would be some people who would say that nothing can be done, but I think just the opposite. Penn State is an example of reform that isn’t serious, that isn’t enforced by colleges, campus and local police, rather than an example of bad policies.” (The chapter has since been disbanded.)
The Penn State tragedy is also an example of how difficult it is to prosecute when things go wrong. Since hazing is classified as a misdemeanor, it is difficult for prosecutors to win jail sentences against perpetrators. In the Cornell case with SAE, a grand jury charged three students with first-degree hazing and providing alcohol to a minor. One of the defense attorneys argued that the students themselves were bullied into the bullying of the victim. The judge acquitted them of all charges. After the University of Texas death, two “pledge trainers” were sentenced to four days in jail. The most serious sanctions were doled out in the “Brown Bag Night” death, with four students receiving from 30- to 120-day jail sentences. Most incur limited or no punishment, other than having to pay financial settlements to victims’ families. Last year, the Washington and Lee student charged in the vehicular death of a party guest was sentenced to three years in prison, but he was found guilty of drunk driving, a much harsher offense than hazing.
Earlier this month, a judge threw out the felony charges against eight of the 18 Beta Theta Pi members charged in the Penn State death, leaving only misdemeanors in place. Fourteen brothers are now set to face trial in December. The men are charged with reckless endangerment, hazing and furnishing alcohol to a minor, with guilty verdicts likely not to include jail time.
“Even though it’s deadly, it’s hard to make the case for involuntary manslaughter when some might argue that the victim participated voluntarily,” says Hechinger, “so often it’s not pursued.”
This post was updated May 10 at 11:28 p.m.
An undergraduate student government official released records Tuesday that revealed members of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity in 2013 made racist and misogynistic statements during its chapter meetings.
The documents, from the fraternity’s Eta Sigma chapter at UCLA, included racist comments under subheads titled “Racial Sensitivity,” and misogynistic comments under subheads such as “Internal Social.”
Aaliya Khan, an outgoing USAC general representative, posted a Google Slides presentation on Facebook that includes screenshots of the fraternity chapter’s 2013 meeting minutes. Khan and Areni Der-Grigorian, a staff member in Khan’s office, wrote the presentation.
“(The comments in the minutes) encourage and perpetuate racism and rape culture,” Khan and Der-Grigorian wrote in the presentation.
The meeting minutes included remarks such as “Why do Mexicans refry their beans? Have you ever seen them do it right the first time?” and “We’re learning something about Afghanistan. Something something something terrorists.” Fraternity members also wrote “How long does it take a negress to shit? 9 MONTHS.”
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The minutes also included misogynistic comments, such as “Dates should be HOT, FUN, DTF. Any two of the three.” and “Invite Womens … pester them until they say yes.” The documents also listed instructions about how to interact with women at a party, directing members of the fraternity to show girls where the bar is, take group shots and increase physical contact with them.
Khan’s and Der-Grigorian’s Google Slides presentation also references a 2015 incident in which the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and the Alpha Phi sorority at UCLA held a “Kanye Western” themed raid. The references were listed in a slide titled “Challenging the System,” which connected the comments in the 2013 meeting minutes to current incidents.
Khan tried to add her presentation to the agenda during the Tuesday meeting, but not enough council members voted to change the agenda. Council voted 6-6-0 but needed a two-thirds vote to amend the agenda.
Heather Rosen, outgoing USAC president, said amending the agenda would go against Robert’s Rules of Order, which requires all agenda items to be decided by Friday at 5 p.m. The council has amended its agenda with a two-thirds vote to add special agenda items in the past.
Todd Shelton, assistant executive director of communication and technology of the national Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, said in an email statement Tuesday afternoon the national fraternity condemns the racist and misogynistic comments in the chapter’s minutes, but did not mention plans of disciplinary action.
Mark Timmes, chief executive officer of the national fraternity, said in the email he believes the quotes in the minutes are inconsistent with the values of Pi Kappa Phi.
“Pi Kappa Phi is committed to a culture of diversity and inclusion that promotes respect for the identities and backgrounds of all people,” Timmes said in the statement.
Adam Brownell, president of the UCLA Eta Sigma chapter, said he supports the statement issued by the national organization. Brownell declined to comment further.
Derek Bergmann, president of the Interfraternity Council at UCLA, said in an email statement the comments in the minutes go against what it means to be in a fraternity at UCLA. He did not mention plans of disciplinary action.
“While this incident happened three years ago, we will get to the bottom of it because racism will not be tolerated,” he said. “A major priority of the current Interfraternity Council is to strengthen our fraternities by fostering greater diversity and inclusion.”
In an email statement, UCLA spokesperson Ricardo Vasquez said UCLA will not comment until it finishes investigating the allegations.
“While we will look into them before commenting, we can confirm that we unequivocally condemn any language used to denigrate individuals based on their race, ethnicity, religion or background,” Vasquez said.