The Seattle Times
The parents of a Washington State University (WSU) freshman from Bellevue who died after a fraternity party in 2019 say the university’s negligence played a role in their son’s death.
A Pullman police investigation, as well as a WSU investigation, found the events leading up to 19-year-old Sam Martinez’s death constituted “illegal hazing.”
Parents Hector Martinez and Jolayne Houtz said university officials missed multiple opportunities to curb a culture of hazing at WSU, and that they lost their son because of that negligence.
“Washington State University has accumulated all of this information and evidence about the bad behavior of specific frats in its Greek system, yet they don’t share that [with the public],” said Houtz. “We were blindsided.”
According to university records, the school documented repeated problems with its fraternal organizations, including alcohol violations, alcohol abuse and poisoning, injuries, assaults, hospitalizations and hazing, which is illegal in Washington state.
“We just didn’t know all of this. If we had known just a tiny fraction of it, I think that Sam would still be alive,” said Houtz.
Sam Martinez, who attended Newport High School in Bellevue, pledged the Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) fraternity in July of 2019. He began classes in Pullman in August and died three months later, on the morning of November 12, 2019. His cause of death was acute alcohol poisoning.
The night before, Sam Martinez attended an alcohol-fueled fraternity function called “Big-Little Night.” The event is when pledges find out the identity of their big brothers, records show. Police found the big brother assigned to Sam and one other pledge gave them a half-gallon of rum, the equivalent of 40 shots, to share between the two.
“We know it now, but we had no way to know it back then. But WSU knew it. They knew it dating back to at least 2013 that ATO was a bad actor [and they had a duty to share it],” said Houtz.
WSU finds “culture of higher risk” in its fraternities
University officials at the highest levels began documenting a reckless and risky pattern of behavior in WSU fraternities at least a decade ago.
In 2012, WSU President Elson Floyd convened a task force to address alcohol and drug problems within the student body. The WSU Presidential Task Force on Prevention and Education for Alcohol and other Drugs concluded that being a member of a Greek organization put students at far greater risk for alcohol-related problems compared with other students.
“At WSU, students in the Greek community drink significantly more often, are about twice as likely to binge drink, and to experience harmful consequences and impaired academic performance as a result of drinking,” wrote Task Force authors. “Examples of negative consequences included serious falls, hospitalizations, and ‘a near-fatal recent alcohol poisoning,’” Task Force representatives wrote.
The Task Force recommended that because of the Greek “culture of higher risk,” freshmen should not be allowed to live in fraternity houses. According to Task Force leaders, there was full consensus on this step to better protect freshmen, except for the school’s Center for Fraternity and Sorority Life and student representatives from the Greek community. In the end, the university decided freshmen could continue to live in fraternities as long as the organization was alcohol-free.
When Sam Martinez’s parents sought information about fraternities in 2019, they said they saw none of this information. Instead, the University’s Center for Fraternity and Sorority Life touted the many benefits of Greek life membership on its official school website:
- A home away from home
- Lifelong friendships
- Leadership development
- Community service opportunities
- Academics: “a pillar of fraternity and sorority life”
Sam Martinez and his parents also attended a new student orientation event in Pullman on July 6, 2019. They said the school again promoted fraternities as a healthy, success-driven environment for incoming freshmen.
“Since 1906, [the Greek community] has had a rich and rooted role in campus culture and continues to make men better men and women better women,” university representatives wrote.
“We were all excited. We were on top of the world,” said Hector Martinez, adding he was especially impressed with the community service focus in the Greek environment.
“That’s the most incredible thing to me,” he continued. “They knew, but they only put out the positive and not the negative.”
In July 2020, Sam Martinez’s parents sued WSU and the ATO organization. In the complaint, they argued WSU had a duty to protect students from foreseeable harm and enforce Washington state hazing laws.
“WSU continuously promoted, sanctioned and recognized ATO…despite being aware of continuing violations of alcohol, hazing, and other student conduct rules… WSU breached their duty to their students when it failed to curtail ongoing dangerous activities,” wrote plaintiff attorney Becky Roe in the complaint.
The family has settled with ATO for an undisclosed amount. A judge dismissed the case against WSU last month, stating there was “no ‘special relationship’ between the plaintiff and [WSU] that would create a duty owed to the plaintiff by [the University].”
Sam Martinez’s parents are appealing the decision.
Citing the ongoing litigation, WSU officials declined to be interviewed or comment. In legal documents connected to the case, WSU attorneys said the school didn’t have power or control over the fraternity.
“The University did not owe a legal duty to protect Sam from the harm he suffered because of the illegal conduct of other adults at a private, off-campus establishment,” wrote university attorneys from the Attorney General’s Office. “[ATO] sought and was granted recognition by the University… the relationship agreement is facilitative and supportive, not controlling or micromanaging.”
WSU documented troubled history at ATO fraternity
Just as the WSU Presidential Task Force began its probe in 2013, the WSU Conduct Board investigated a hazing complaint against ATO.
The Board found the chapter broke hazing, reckless endangerment, and alcohol laws after, on two occasions, “pledges” – who are recruits trying to gain full membership status – were made to clean up raw sewage without protective gear. The Conduct Board found that violated reckless endangerment laws and university policy by “needlessly jeopardizing” the health of members. The Board also cited ATO for violating alcohol and hazing laws by waking pledges up in the middle of the night and providing them alcohol during a run across the campus.
The Conduct Board assigned the most serious sanction possible: loss of chapter recognition by the University for a year, with two years of probation to follow. When a Greek organization loses school recognition for violations of laws and/or University policy, that essentially shuts a house down as it prohibits them from recruiting new members and forbids them from accessing any university support or resources. However, the sanction didn’t stick. The WSU president reduced the loss of recognition to an eight-month probation.
“It’s just this ridiculous cycle,” said Houtz. “Why would you repeat past mistakes? You know it’s not working. When were they going to take it seriously? [WSU officials] were talking about the issues around this fraternity. They knew and they didn’t tell us. That’s not right.”
In 2015, WSU received at least two complaints against ATO for alleged violations of WSU Standards of Conduct for Students. In one case, the Student Conduct Board received information that “new ATO members may have been forced to drink,” and that a new ATO member was injured after drinking.
In that case, the Conduct Board declined to formally investigate, but school officials warned ATO leadership that “forced drinking could be considered hazing. Washington State University has a zero-tolerance for hazing and organizations found responsible for hazing will lose University recognition.”
Sam Martinez’s parents said ATO got another pass from WSU.
“They know who the ones are who are the hazers, and they look the other way… I find that very hard to forgive,” said Houtz.
Problems persisted. In 2016, fraternity and sorority student leaders for the entire Greek system took drastic action after “a growing problem” with alcohol-related incidents. The leadership councils sent out a press release to the WSU administration and others announcing they were banning all social events for a semester due to “a concerning rise in the number of assaults, rapes, falls and hospitalizations due to the overuse of alcohol and/or drugs by Greek members in the community,” wrote the student leaders. “With the current negative reputation our community possesses, it is needless to say that the future of Greek Life at the institution is in jeopardy.”
The next year, WSU received another complaint of hazing from the mother of an ATO pledge.
The mother reported her son had been forced to drink “large quantities of alcohol,” and withstood “physical and emotional abuse.”
“My son’s college experience, as well as his friends, were completely ruined because of the acts of this fraternity, and he is too scared to continue his time at Washington State University,” wrote the mother in the complaint to the school. The mother included photos that she described as pledges being forced to stand in toilets with upperclassmen around them drinking and a photo of a freshman getting tackled to the ground.
On July 3, 2017, the WSU Office of Student Conduct wrote to the president of ATO to say “there is insufficient information to find ATO responsible for violating any of the standards.”
In 2018, emails and legal records show ATO expelled nearly half of its members after complaints of hazing. In connection with the internal investigation, the fraternity conducted interviews and drug tests that WSU officials helped to organize.
Also in 2018, the year before Sam died, his parents say WSU missed yet another opportunity to send a zero-tolerance message on hazing. On August 20, 2019, WSU’s Center for Community Standards received a complaint from the mother of a Sigma Nu pledge. The Sigma Nu fraternity shared housing space with ATO. The mother said her son was being “forced to drink” and that the “constant drinking” was putting him in a ‘bad place.’ The mother wrote her son was “threatening self-harm” and she worried for his safety.
Three days later, WSU’s Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs sent a letter to the Sigma Nu fraternity informing them of a serious consequence for hazing. Associate Vice President of Student Engagement Ellen Taylor informed the chapter they were imposing an interim loss of recognition because they’d found new members were asked to “binge drink” on numerous occasions and “participants in the reported activities experienced emotional and physical harm as a result of participation.”
The loss of recognition would mean Sigma Nu would have to shut down at WSU. That didn’t happen. On September 9, 2019, the Acting Vice President of Student Affairs, Terry Boston, wrote to the Sigma Nu leadership, saying he was reinstating the chapter recognition. Sigma Nu could stay and get another chance, but the house was forbidden from hosting social events involving alcohol or holding new member activities.
Two months later, Sam Martinez died after a hazing incident that took place in the house ATO shared with Sigma Nu.
“What does that say to everybody in the whole system? It says at the end of the day, you simply aren’t going to be held accountable. And that was a really important and terrible message that was sent to everyone [in the Greek system],” said plaintiff attorney Becky Roe.
After Sam Martinez’s death, WSU removed official recognition from ATO for five years. In the last legislative session “Sam’s Law” was passed. It requires all universities in Washington state to publicize hazing violations on its website. WSU representatives sent legislators a letter in support of the legislation.
Seven ATO members were found guilty of supplying alcohol to a minor. Police recommended hazing charges, but the statute of limitations for that crime had passed. One of the ATO members served 19 days in jail.
“It’s inexplicable to me,” said Houtz. “Why are we still talking about hazing? Can’t we just agree that it’s long past time for everyone to do their part, including Washington State University, to stop it in its tracks?”