In the past month, at least four young men have died in circumstances apparently related to college fraternities. Two of those deaths have come this week alone. At least three young men had also died the previous semester.
Despite policy changes from universities and frats, a slew of anti-hazing laws and activism from the dead students’ parents, the trend shows no sign of changing. Nuwer laments that many young men see hazing as a “requirement for manhood.”
The deaths come at a time when families, universities and fraternities are struggling to decide how to address the toxic behavior sometimes associated with these organizations. Many supporters say frats’ volunteer service, fundraising, and sense of community outweigh the bad behaviors. But people increasingly are drawing connections between the high-profile fatal incidents and more of them are putting the blame on fraternities’ culture of hazing.
The facts about frat deaths
On Oct. 19, 17-year-old John “Jack” Schoenig, 17, died outside a house alleged to be associated with the Pennsylvania State chapter of the fraternity Chi Phi. The cause of his death was unclear, and the university and the fraternity said the house was off-campus. Regardless, Penn State suspended the fraternity. The university had introduced stricter rules in the wake of the 2017 death of Timothy Piazza, meant to police the bad behavior of fraternities.
Oct. 24 was the last day anyone saw first-year Cornell University student Antonio Tsialas alive. He was found dead two days later in a gorge. The cause of his death also remains unknown, but a statement last week from university President Martha E. Pollack points a finger at frats.
“It is already widely known that an unregistered fraternity-sponsored event took place on October 24, that alcohol was served, and that first-year students, including Mr. Tsialas, were in attendance,” she said. “These events, still under investigation, regrettably follow a pattern of misconduct in the Greek-letter system.” Some of Cornell’s fraternities voted to cancel most of their social activities until the new year, according to student newspaper The Cornell Daily Sun.
Last Thursday, tragedy struck again. San Diego State University student Dylan Hernandez was hospitalized. He died on Sunday. In a statement, President Adela de la Torre said the university had suspended 14 fraternities, and a police investigation had “uncovered information which alleges that a fraternity was involved in possible misconduct.”
The national Phi Gamma Delta organization has suspended its SDSU chapter pending a review, Executive Director Rob Caudill told USA TODAY on Tuesday. “We are devastated by the loss of one of our own,” Caudill said of Hernandez. The fraternity is working with the university and investigators. “If it is determined that any of our policies were violated, we will take immediate and appropriate action,” Caudill said in an email.
Also on Tuesday, police in Pullman, Washington, said they were investigating the apparent “alcohol-related” death of 19-year-old Samuel Martinez. Officials said they found the teen dead Tuesday morning at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, which said it is working with authorities on the investigation.
All Washington State University fraternities and sororities have suspended social events for the rest of the semester, according to a school statement. The university said the Alpha Tau Omega house was located off campus and said it is providing counseling for its members.
“The University extends its deepest condolences to all those impacted by this heart-breaking situation,” the statement said.
As the deaths pile up, the stigma in recent years toward hazing has grown. High-profile cases, such as the graphic death of Penn State’s Piazza, have thrust the issue further into the spotlight. Piazza had consumed a “life-threatening” amount of alcohol, then fell down a flight of stairs, fractured his skull and lacerated his spleen.
Some colleges have moved to ban Greek life outright. Swarthmore College this year banned frats and sororities on its campus after it was discovered that one of fraternities had been writing misogynistic messages in internal documents. And Ohio University in October suspended all fraternities on the campus following allegations of hazing.
The deaths also have made activists of many of the young men’s parents.
Jim and Evelyn Piazza, Timothy’s parents, have taken to speaking on college campuses in an effort to prevent future hazing incidents. They’re scheduled to speak at Penn State, the site of their son’s death, later this week, and they recently spoke at Cornell. Their talks recount in vivid medical detail the night their son died.
It can be uncomfortable, but that’s the goal, Jim Piazza said. The hope is students will think about the consequences of their actions on themselves and others.
Piazza believes the key to end hazing is to have stricter laws that can serve as deterrents. He said it’s unrealistic to think that Greek organizations will ever go away, and universities can only do so much on their own. The Piazzas are working with Greek organizations to push changes in the law.
Some parents want starker change. Debbie Smith lost her son Matthew Carrington, a student at California State University, Chico to hazing in 2005. She helped get a California law passed in his name that makes it possible to be charged with a felony in connection to hazing. She also started the Anti-Hazing Awareness Movement, dedicated to teaching about the dangers of hazing.
She worries some legal efforts endorsed by fraternities let the national organizations off the hook for hazing incidents.
So how to save Greek life? “I could see totally dismantling it and starting over,” she said.
The Greek world itself is fractured over how best to prevent the deaths of more students.
Sigma Phi Epsilon, one of the nation’s largest fraternities, recently left the North American Interfraternity Conference, a national advocacy group that has 65 fraternity members. That group had pushed for, among other things, a ban on hard alcohol in fraternity houses. It has also worked with some families who have lost their children to hazing to push for stricter anti-hazing laws.
Those efforts were a good start, but ultimately not enough, Sigma Phi Epsilon CEO Brian Warren said in a statement. Tucker Hipps, a student at Clemson University, died under mysterious circumstances while pledging for SigEp in 2014. The fraternity has since banned all alcohol and ended the formal recruitment process known as pledging. That tradition, Warren says, is near-synonymous with hazing.
The national conference of fraternities said it rejected the notion that it was not “aggressively promoting a positive and safe fraternity experience.”
As news of the deaths spread on Wednesday, the national conference issued a statement saying it was monitoring the situations and was in touch with the local chapters and universities. It also offered thoughts and prayers to the family members and friends of the young men.
“These are separate situations and therefore it is inappropriate to attribute a singular cause,” the statement read. “Regardless of the outcomes, these situations remind us of the importance of a safe environment for members and guests of our organizations.”
Part of the difficulty in rooting out hazing culture is the secrecy that is required to haze in the first place, Nuwer said. Frat members don’t want to be seen as ratting out their brothers in activities they might know are wrong. It may take alumni and their families talking about their experiences to ease that stigma, Nuwer said.