Greek life communities on campuses across the U.S. are again facing a reckoning after recent student deaths due to alleged hazing.
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) freshman Adam Oakes died February 27, and Bowling Green State University (BGSU) sophomore Stone Foltz died March 7 after both consumed large amounts of alcohol at fraternity events.
Oakes was at an event at Delta Chi in Virginia, and Foltz was at an event at Pi Kappa Alpha in Ohio. In statements that expressed sympathy for the loss of Oakes and Foltz, the national organizations of Delta Chi and Pi Kappa Alpha announced that the chapters involved in the hazing allegations have been suspended.
"Regardless of if it's a fraternity or a sorority, it's absolutely despicable that these life-threatening actions are still carried out - often, with little to no accountability," Schanelle Saldanha, a junior at American University in Washington, told VOA.
"That, coupled with the accusations of racism and sexual assault, only reinforce why Greek life is such a toxic community for so many," she opined.
According to Inside Hazing, an anti-hazing website, while 65% of respondents in a survey of fraternity and sorority members said the primary goal of an initiation is to bond:
57% said it is important to tolerate psychological stress.
31% said humiliation is a significant element in an initiation.
29% said extreme consumption of alcohol is often part of an initiation.
29% said it is important to tolerate physical pain.
29% said they are concerned with the overuse of alcohol during pledge activities.
25% said paddles are usually used during initiation.
Not all the 12,000 chapters of 123 fraternities and sororities on U.S. campuses experience extreme violence or mayhem. Many of the 750,000 undergraduate members on the more than 800 campuses in the U.S. and Canada said they enjoyed being part of a community and gaining leadership skills.
Living in a house with other members offers support, socialization and even proximity to campus, students at Missouri State University told the student-run newspaper The Standard in 2018.
But, according to the Addiction Center website, while most agree that heavy drinking and partying is a big part of Greek life, driving pledges into harmful behavior is not.
"While the circumstances surrounding these deaths are still under investigation, we must be clear that hazing is a betrayal of the fraternal vows to which every member commits and has no place on campus. When hard alcohol is added to the mix, it is a formula for tragedy," the North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) wrote in a statement to VOA.
Regrets and apologies have followed injuries and death at fraternity initiations since 1959, said Hank Nuwer, a professor emeritus at Franklin College and author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives.
But each year, young men pledging for admission to a fraternal organization turn up dead or gravely injured. They have been poisoned by excessive alcohol and have choked on their own vomit, like Max Gruver, who died at the Phi Delta Theta house at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 2017.
They have fallen down stairs and sustained traumatic brain injuries, like Tim Piazza, who died in 2017 at Beta Theta Pi at Penn State University. They have been found dead at the bottom of a gorge, like Cornell University freshman Antonio Tsialas, whose death was ruled an accident after he left a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in 2019.
"The goal is for something like this to never happen again and to build a national model that promotes health and safety and creates a climate of respect and inclusion that is conducive to academic success," wrote VCU President Michael Rao in the university's plan for a review of Greek life. He did not mention Delta Chi specifically in this statement.
BGSU has suspended Pi Kappa Alpha for alleged hazing and is working with law enforcement and pursuing its own code of conduct investigation, according to a message sent from BGSU President Rodney Rogers and Provost Joe Whitehead Jr. In addition, the university is halting new member initiations and all other events.
Before the pandemic, the Anti-Hazing Coalition - composed of parents of hazing victims - spoke at universities to educate students about bullying, forced excessive drinking and other potentially dangerous behaviors.
"They tell the stories of what actually happened to their sons, and the heinous behaviors of hazing that emerged on the campuses where their sons were attending college," said Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), which, with NIC, is part of the coalition.
And they "try to educate those students on the campuses where they're visiting, about what hazing looks like, how it can get out of control, and to urge them to make sure that these kinds of behaviors are not happening in their organizations and on their campuses," Weatherford said.
In a Zoom event on March 21, parent Rae Ann Gruver described how much her son, Max, drank at the fraternity, explaining that he took 18-20 "pulls" - or swigs - of a 190-proof grain alcohol called Diesel.
She said that the fraternity brothers made Max drink when he answered questions wrong, and that because he had been late to fraternity events, he was made to drink even more.
"They singled him out," she said. "The actions taken by these hazers resulted in my son's death."
Rae Ann Gruver and her husband, Stephen Gruver, have also worked to pass new hazing laws in Louisiana and founded the Max Gruver Foundation. Weatherford said NPC and NIC are also taking action at the legislative level.
While criminal accountability in hazing is under state jurisdiction, federal legislation addresses it through the END ALL Hazing Act and the Report and Educate About Campus Hazing (REACH) Act, Weatherford said.
The END ALL Hazing Act focuses on campus transparency and would require that universities post online any adjudications - formal judgments - of hazing incidents. The REACH Act aims to establish a federal definition of hazing and requires that hazing be a Clery Act crime, meaning that universities would have to include hazing in their crime statistics.
Weatherford recommends that hazing victims, at the least, report the acts to the university, but how things are handled and what resources are offered could differ according to the campus.
As for prospective students who are interested in Greek life but worried about the possibility of hazing, Weatherford advises them to be aware and know that both NPC and NIC - and the fraternities and sororities that fall under them - are anti-hazing organizations.
"We want to make sure that if there are bad actors, that those bad actors are held accountable and removed from our organizations," Weatherford said.