As first-time students settle in at college campuses each fall, Debbie Smith can’t help but feel dread. In 2005, her son Matthew Carrington started a similar journey at California State University in Chico.
He, like many young men, found himself pledging for a fraternity. That was odd, Smith said, because he had never expressed that much interest in Greek life. But his friend wanted to join Chi Tau, and he persuaded Carrington to join him.
They expected collegiality, a place to call home away from home. The virtues of Greek life are supposed to include higher grades and a sense of camaraderie that lasts a lifetime.
To join the fraternal brotherhood, Carrington and others were forced to endure months of hazing rituals in the process of pledging. Their initiation culminated in a series of strenuous calisthenics in a basement. Pipes in the house had backed up, spewing sewage. Fans blew cold air onto them as their would-be brothers had them drink water repeatedly from a 5-gallon jug. They soiled themselves but kept going. For Carrington, it proved too much for his body to handle.
The words “In the basement, no one can hear you scream” were reportedly scrawled on the subterranean walls.
Few may have heard Carrington as he suffered, but Smith has been speaking for him since in the hopes of preventing another hazing death. Still, the dread persists.
“You're on pins and needles, you know, all through the school year,” Smith said. “Because you know it’s going to happen to somebody. We don't know who, we don't know where, we don't know when, but we know what's going to happen."
Every year for the past two decades, at least one young man has died in connection with fraternity hazing. Whether it’s alcohol poisoning, extreme physical labor or physical injuries, dozens of lives have been lost in the name of fraternal kinship. Yet rush continues, pledge classes carry out antics, and Greek initiations roll on. In 2018-19, the North American Interfraternity Conference, an organization with 66 fraternities, expects to have more than 300,000 members.
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Supporters and active members of fraternities say the deaths are isolated incidents that do not represent the whole of the Greek life experience. Greek organizations get young people involved in public service, they point out, and they connect college students with a built-in network of successful and supportive alumni.
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There have been more than 250 hazing deaths at schools in America since the 1800s, according to Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College. Nuwer says he triple-checks details and conducts interviews to maintain his database of hazing deaths in America.
With such risks, why join at all?
New college students are willing to forgo fraternities' toxic reputations for a ready-made network of friends in a setting where many students may know few people. Greek organizations also raise money for charity or volunteer their time, which may appeal to civic-minded young men. And many active members insist their experiences don’t align with the popular perception made ubiquitous thanks in part to films like "Animal House" or, in more recent years, "Neighbors."
Archit Dhar, a 20-year-old junior studying systems engineering, is president of Sigma Alpha Mu at the University of Pennsylvania, though he started college thinking he wouldn’t join a fraternity. He wasn’t thrilled about joining what seemed to be “this very toxically masculine environment.” He worried about hazing and if he would fit in with a culture that was mostly white.
In spite of those fears, he said, he found himself drawn to the rushing experience, and he stuck with it.
“If you find the right community of people who are embracing the fact that you’re different, and that everyone has their own unique diversity to them, it is a very healthy environment to be in,” he said.
Fraternities have changed – a little
Recent deaths have increased pressure on fraternities to change – and they have, a little.
The North America Interfraternity Council recently adopted a policy that prohibits hard liquor from fraternity houses, said Judson Horras, the group’s president. Horras stressed it was students who voted to adopt that policy. The group also has worked with parents who lost their children to hazing, he said, to push for stronger anti-hazing laws.
Horras said fraternities do err. He called the high-profile death in 2017 of Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old Penn State University student, "tragic." (Piazza died after a hazing ritual that had him consume a "life-threatening" amount of alcohol. He later fell down a flight of stairs.)
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But Horras said the attention-grabbing incidents mask the positive experiences of Greek life.
“It’s certainly not perfect,” Horras said. “We’re dealing with college students.”
The benefits of Greek life, he added, are “timeless.” And despite the bad press around hazing deaths, enrollment numbers are rising.
“It gives you a place of home when you arrive on a college campus," he said. "It’s the place that you select as your connection and your brotherhood.”
Some fraternities have made more significant changes. Sigma Phi Epsilon may have adopted the most extensive measures after the death of Tucker Hipps in 2014. The fraternity's CEO, Brian C. Warren Jr., said there are antiquated practices in fraternities that Greek organizations should rethink.
To start, the fraternity’s members in 2017 voted to ban alcohol in its houses.
They’ve also overhauled their process for recruiting members. Many fraternities encourage members to join during a set period of time near the beginning of the school year known as rush. The recruiting period, which involves visits to many Greek houses to meet their members, is often associated with binge drinking.
The process isn’t inviting to students who may be shy or wary of partying associated with fraternities. And rush is more attractive to people who are more prone to risky behavior, Warren said. Those less familiar with fraternities, like first-generation students, may be less willing to spend a week joining an organization.
So, Warren said, the fraternity has done away with rush. It now encourages year-round recruiting.
The fraternity also says it no longer allows pledging, a sort of trial period in which new members prove themselves to the fraternity. Warren argued the practice is practically synonymous with hazing.
More hazing deaths ahead?
But that's just one fraternity, and one with a questionable death tied to its name. Activists look at the dozens of Greek organizations who haven’t changed to their liking and warn more deaths are ahead.
One of those activists is Cindy Hipps, mother of Tucker Hipps. She believes his death was tied to a hazing incident while pledging for Sigma Phi Epsilon. (Officially, the case is unsolved. The fraternity declined to comment on Hipps’ death.)
“If you talk to the fraternities, they think they have made a lot of changes,” Hipps said. “But if you look at the statistics, to me, I don’t really see that much change.”
Parents such as Hipps and Smith have gone to state legislatures to push for changes, but such efforts often come only after someone has already died. What’s more, states don’t have the appetite to regulate fraternities directly, so most new laws simply make hazing a more serious criminal offense. Matt’s Law in California, named after Smith’s son, made it a felony to participate in hazing that resulted in death. The Tucker Hipps Law in South Carolina required universities to publish reports that document fraternities that have broken rules.
Colleges also have a long history of trying to eliminate hazing without success, through sanctions against fraternities or by asking Greek members to help change their culture, said Kevin Kruger, president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, an organization of college staffers. In fact, notes from the group's founding year, 1919, show members were strategizing over what to do about hazing. Not much has changed.
In recent years universities have been quicker to act against fraternities that step out of line, Kruger said. That might include revoking a fraternity’s charter or recognition on campus, or the more drastic option of shutting down Greek life altogether.
The challenge with doing that, experts say, is universities risk driving the organizations “underground.” They essentially keep operating, but without university-sanctioned activities – and accountability.
Some universities do ban or otherwise try to prohibit fraternities. Recently, Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, banned Greek life after it was found that a fraternity on campus had written misogynistic messages in a group document. Administrators say the college community supported the end of Greek life on campus because the chapters voluntarily closed.
At Harvard, single-sex fraternities are technically allowed. But students who are part of these groups are barred from holding “leadership positions” in athletic teams or in student groups recognized by the university. Single-sex clubs “run counter to Harvard's long-standing non-discrimination principles, and have an outsized and negative impact on the social and personal experiences of Harvard College students,” according to the college’s policy on social organizations.
The policy has been controversial, and a group of fraternities and sororities has sued the university to stop it, saying it’s discriminatory toward students who want to be part of the groups. That lawsuit is still pending.
For parents who have lost their children to hazing, the solution remains elusive.
For Hipps, more education on hazing prevention could help, but more substantial change is necessary. She says universities should do more to curb problem behavior. And if that means banning fraternities, so be it.
Smith is an advocate for education. She said forbidding young men to participate in these activities may further drive them toward hazing. But sometimes she thinks her approach involves too many risks.
“Too many kids are being tortured and killed,” she said. “And for what? To be a part of something that when it all comes down to it, they don't have their back? They don't protect them.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fraternity rush, Greek life recruitment: Men die in frats every year