For the second time in two years, a young man has died at Pennsylvania State University at a house with fraternity members.
John “Jack” Schoenig, 17, died Saturday at a house where Chi Phi fraternity members are believed to live, though it was not the official fraternity house, according to the university. It wasn’t immediately clear what caused his death. A toxicology report, according to Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers, is expected within six weeks.
Regardless, the university suspended the fraternity, which means, among other things, it cannot participate in social activities on campus.
Both the university and the fraternity have distanced themselves from the teenager’s death.
“Penn State offers deepest sympathies to the family and friends of this young man,” the statement said.
Chi Phi offered “prayers” to the family, while distancing itself from Schoenig’s death in a statement.
“While the incident at an off-campus residence was not part of fraternity activities we will monitor the investigation by the university and local officials,” the statement read.
It’s common for fraternities to have unofficial houses like the one Chi Phi members allegedly had at Penn State. College students often acquire the housing when universities start to monitor frats more closely or when they insist on removing alcohol from the houses, said Gentry McCreary, a consultant to universities on Greek life. Fraternity members or their friends will live in the satellite homes and may host parties or events there, away from campus and scrutiny.
More oversight of frats and restrictions on alcohol at official houses do help to reduce harm, but they come with the potential side effect of making it harder to police bad actors, McCreary said.
“It’s easier for them to do whatever they want to do,” said Douglas Fierberg, an attorney who often represents families whose children have died in connection to fraternities. Regardless, Fierberg said fraternities have been found liable for actions that occur in these types of houses.
Universities, McCreary said, should work with local police to ensure satellite houses are being monitored.
Penn State said it couldn’t control whether frat members were living together off-campus. “Outside of their first year, all students, whether in a fraternity or not, can select housemates at their own discretion. The University does not control who can live together or where they live in off-campus locations,” said Wyatt DuBois, a spokesperson for the university.
Fraternities have faced greater public scrutiny in recent years. One factor: At least one young man has died in connection to fraternity hazing every year for the past two decades.
Colleges also have less patience for fraternities that violate the institution’s rules and are quicker to suspend bad actors. Ohio University recently suspended all fraternities on campus following reports of hazing.
Penn State itself adopted a rigorous set of rules meant to police the bad behavior of fraternities following Timothy Piazza’s high-profile death in 2017. Piazza died after a Beta Theta Pi hazing ritual that had him consume a “life-threatening” amount of alcohol. Among other injuries, he had fallen down a flight of stairs, fractured his skull and lacerated his spleen.
The new rules after his death included stricter punishments for fraternities found to be hazing their members and the creation of a “report card” meant to inform parents about which organizations were in the university’s good graces. First-year students were also barred from rushing — an often ritualistic process of joining a fraternity — until their spring semester.
Chi Phi did not have any violations on the most recent report card, and the group’s members appeared to have a higher grade point average than the campus average.
Read Chris Quintana’s full USA Today article (along with additional articles and map of fraternity deaths) HERE.