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- It’s just a few months into the 2019-20 school year and five young men have already died in incidents that appear to be connected to fraternities at colleges across the country.
- Multiple deadly fraternity incidents a year have become the norm, but overall little has been done to curb dangerous activities.
- Experts told Insider that alumni have impeded efforts to make fraternities safer, including banning alcohol from the houses.
- Universities are also cautious to crack down further for fear of losing donations of fraternity alumni and becoming less desirable to applicants looking for a social experience in college.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
A recent spate of deaths at American colleges has brought a focus back on dangerous behavior at fraternities.
So far this school year, five young men have been found dead at fraternities, or after attending fraternity events, at schools across the country from New York to California. Two fraternity brothers died this week alone.
Unfortunately, this has become business as usual. At the same time last year, six people had died as a result of hazing or drug and alcohol abuse at fraternities – including a four-year-old boy who was run over by an 18-year-old University of Kentucky fraternity brother who was charged with driving under the influence.
Here are all the victims so far this school year:
- John “Jack” Schoenig, 17 – Pennsylvania State University: Schoenig, a high school student from Erie, Pennsylvania, was visiting Pennsylvania State University on Saturday, October 19, when he went into cardiac arrest at an off-campus home associated with the Chi Phi fraternity. Paramedics were dispatched to the scene shortly before 9:30 p.m., but failed to resuscitate him, and Schoenig died at the scene, according to State College.com. The Daily Collegian reported that the fraternity was placed on suspension pending the results of an investigation into Schoenig’s death. An autopsy was conducted to determine Schoenig’s cause of death, but the report has not been completed yet.
- Antonio Tsialas, 18– Cornell University: The Cornell freshman’s body was found at the bottom of a gorge near campus on October 26, two days after attending an evening event at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, police told The Cornell Daily Sun. In an email to students, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said Tsialas attended an “unregistered” event where alcohol was served and that his death follows “a pattern of misconduct in the Greek-letter system.” While the fraternity was not suspended, the school’s Interfraternity Council voted to cancel nearly all regulated events for the rest of the fall semester.
- Dylan Hernandez, 19 – San Diego State University: The school suspended 14 fraternities following the death of Hernandez, a student who was pledging the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, according to the Times of San Diego. The San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office said Hernandez attended a fraternity event the night of November 6. After returning to his dorm later that night, he fell off his elevated bunk-bed and hit his head, and his roommate helped him back into bed. Hernandez was found unresponsive the next morning and rushed to the hospital, where he later died. It’s still unclear whether alcohol played a role in his death. Phi Gamma Delta suspended its SDSU chapter pending a review, executive director Rob Caudill told USA Today.
- Ivan Aguirre, 20 – Arizona State University: Aguirre was found dead in his room at the Lambda Chi fraternity building at ASU’s Tempe campus on November 11, according to azfamily.com. The exact circumstances of his death remain a mystery, and even his family told 12 News that they haven’t been told the cause or time of death. Police said foul play is not suspected.
- Samuel Martinez, 19 – Washington State University: The freshman student died at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity the morning of November 12, after he was found unconscious and not breathing. Pullman police told KREM that Martinez’s death may be alcohol related. A WSU spokesman said in a press release that all fraternities and sororities within the school’s Greek life community have “self-imposed an immediate suspension on all social events for the remainder of the semester.”
Fraternities date back to 1776, and deaths date back to 1838
Fraternities have been a part of the American landscape since the birth of the nation in 1776, when the Phi Beta Kappa Society was founded at the College of William and Mary. But their popularity didn’t take off until the early 1800s.
Ever since then, death has often followed these organizations, especially in regards to hazing – the sometimes drunken and abusive feats recruits have to go through in order to join a fraternity.
Hank Nuwer, a journalist who has extensively covered the issue of hazing, has kept a database of fraternity-related deaths dating back to 1838. One of the earliest entries draws similarities to Tsialas’ death. In 1873, Cornell student Mortimer N. Leggett took part in a required nighttime walk with the Kappa Alpha Society, and fell down a steep gorge to his death.
- Harvard University
Nuwer told Insider that the trend of alcohol becoming an issue at fraternities happened in the 1960s and ’70s, when states raised the legal drinking age to 21. The first mention of alcohol on Nuwer’s list was the death of a Kappa Sigma brother at the University of Missouri in 1940.
A newspaper article at the time said that 21-year-old Hubert Spake died after an initiation for a secret society called Theta Nu Epsilon (members of the latter could be brothers in other fraternities). Spake returned to the Kappa Sigma house after the initiation to go to sleep, and was accidentally suffocated when he turned over in his sleep to lie on his stomach.
An ‘alarming’ trend
Nuwer said there has been at least one hazing death a year at American high schools or colleges from 1959 to 2019.
But in recent years, a handful of fraternity-related deaths a year have become the norm. Between 2008 and 2018, there were an average of 4.9 deaths per calendar year, according to Nuwer’s database. This includes students who died of physical hazing and alcohol-related incidents, as well as bystanders who died as a result of dangerous fraternity behavior.
Nuwer said the recent increase in fraternity deaths per year is “alarming.”
“I mean to see this number of deaths in just one month … that’s worrisome,” Nuwer said. (It should be pointed out that deaths tend to spike in the fall months, when students are going through the initiation process to join fraternities.)
Nuwer said parenting may be to blame with this new spike in dangerous behavior.
“I asked my students in an 18-student first-year sports issues class that question today. One said, ‘We have too many people today who have not been taught limits. They think all will be fun and not any bad circumstances.’ I concur,” Nuwer said. “Look at the admissions scandal. Parents want to show their love by giving everything – everything but old-fashioned lessons in self-restraint.”
What’s being done?
The North American Interfraternity Conference, which counts most of the largest fraternities in the country as its members, said in a statement to Insider that it’s trying to reduce “alcohol misuse” and hazing.
Chief communications officer Todd Shelton stressed that the deaths are still under investigation and since they are “separate situations” it would be “inappropriate to attribute a singular cause.”
Shelton said the NIC has been actively working to make fraternities safer.
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“Addressing the campus-wide issue of alcohol misuse, a hard alcohol ban was implemented this year by the majority of fraternities across the nation.
“Fraternities and sororities are working with parents of hazing victims in a coalition to educate about hazing and strengthen hazing laws.
“NIC fraternities support the END ALL Hazing Act introduced in Congress in June 2019 which seeks to increase transparency, education and accountability, and are advocating for stronger state hazing laws throughout the country,” Shelton said.
Banning Greek life altogether
Alfred University is one of a few schools that has ditched Greek life altogether. The Board of Trustees voted to eradicate Greek life in 2002 after the hazing-related death of a student.
Norm Pollard was dean of students at the time and now speaks regularly about the issue of hazing. While Alfred was able to accomplish this feat, Pollard said he doesn’t expect change to come from universities cracking down on Greek life or getting rid of it altogether.
Instead, he thinks that the change will likely come from fraternities self-regulating.
“I look at the fraternity or Greek industry as a business, and how you are able to maintain a business based upon risk is challenging. And so I would wonder how long insurance companies are willing to cover these groups,” Pollard told Insider.
He also pointed out that parents who have lost children to fraternity incidents often sue, and that may become costly if this pattern of death continues.
“The continuation of [fraternities] being involved in court cases affects the bottom line,” Pollard said, adding, “As a business, if you’re going to be maintained, you have to have a model that’s sustainable and I think the change will come about from that direction.”
Taking matters into their own hands
In the wake of high-profile fraternity deaths in recent years, some schools and individual fraternities have made strides in addressing toxic Greek life culture.
Bob Biggs, the CEO of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, led an effort to turn their houses dry when he took the helm of the group in 1990s.
“We were seeing that the condition of fraternity houses was getting poorer and poorer. Our membership numbers were sliding downward, poor scholarship performance by our chapters as a whole.
“And we just thought, there’s something going on here. So we looked at it carefully and said, ‘You know, the one common denominator is this – it’s the misuse and abuse of alcohol and we need to get out of the bar business and back into the fraternity business,'” Biggs told Insider.
Since banning alcohol from Phi Delt houses, he said he’s seen a dramatic change in chapter membership and academic performance.
“We’ve seen positive growth in the number of new students joining our chapters. The average chapter size today is about 75. Back before 2000, it was under 65. We had about 160 chapters back then. Today we have nearly 200 chapters in North America. Back then our GPA was probably around a 2.6, and today it’s about a 3.1,” Biggs said.
And that’s not to mention their liability insurance, which they’ve seen drop significantly because they’ve had fewer incidents resulting in serious lawsuits.
Biggs said other fraternities are following suit. Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity where Penn State student Timothy Piazza died in 2017, plans to remove alcohol from their properties in the coming year. Sigma Phi Epsilon has a similar plan.
Why change has been slow
Alfred University and Phi Delt remain in the minority. Most schools have not banned Greek life and most fraternities have yet to go dry.
Nuwer said universities may be reluctant to crack down on Greek life if their enrollment is declining, and that kicking even one chapter off campus can impact their endowment, since alumni tend to be donors.
On the fraternity side, Biggs said alumni nostalgic for their glory days can be a roadblock with instituting change.
When Phi Delt started going dry, Biggs said, there was a “lot of push back from alumni” who wanted to tailgate at their house for homecoming or football games.
“The problem is, they leave and go home, but the party’s still going on,” Biggs said. “And you’ve got these 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds still there drinking, and that’s when bad stuff happens.”
- Read more:
- Ohio University suspended the entire marching band, 3 sororities, and all male fraternities after hazing complaints
- College Greeks are known for high GPAs and making more money after graduating – but new research says it’s not as straightforward as it seems
- 12 disturbing pictures that show what life is like in an American fraternity
- A Cornell frat is on probation after holding a contest for having sex with plus-size women