October 20, 2013

Commentary: Fraternities and drinking deaths

While postponing freshmen recruitment can save lives, the Intrafraternity Conference remains adamantly opposed.

By John Hechinger and David Glovin
Bloomberg News

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‘BAND-AID’ ON BROADER PROBLEM?

The University of Central Florida this year lifted a recruitment moratorium, which had been prompted by excessive drinking at fraternities and sororities, after the Interfraternity Conference threatened to sue the school for violating students’ freedom-of-association rights. The national group’s threat didn’t influence the university, said Maribeth Ehasz, a Central Florida vice president.

Of the 24 fraternity-related freshman deaths since 2005, 15 occurred during and after recruiting events, including hazing and initiation rituals.

At Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, freshman David Bogenberger died last year of alcohol poisoning after a fraternity initiation rite known as “Mom and Dad’s Night.” With other pledges, Bogenberger moved from room to room at the chapter house answering questions from members and downing vodka before passing out, court records show.

Fraternities have taken steps to protect students, including banning alcohol at recruiting events and supporting sanctions against violators, said Peter Smithhisler, president of the Interfraternity Conference.

While drinking deaths at fraternities are “heartbreaking,” many students drink too much, not just at fraternities, he said. Keeping out freshmen merely puts a “Band-Aid” on a broader campus problem, he said. It also deprives freshmen of opportunities at fraternities for leadership, career networking and charitable work, he said.

“It would be a travesty if the fraternity experience were not available for the development of these young men,” Smithhisler said. “We believe in the fraternity experience and its ability to really transform an undergraduate into better men, better citizens, better doctors, teachers, engineers.”

If colleges are allowed to restrict recruitment for a semester or a year, they could next extend the delay through sophomore year, or even shut down fraternities, as some liberal arts institutions have done, he said.

“Recruitment is the lifeblood for every chapter,” Smithhisler said.

Carson Starkey, whose death prompted the Cal Poly ban, hadn’t planned on joining a fraternity until he arrived at the public university of 19,000 on the central California coast. One out of six undergraduates there participate in Greek life.

The clean-cut, curly haired 18-year-old from Austin, Texas, knew no one on campus, and the opportunity to bond with fraternity brothers soon appealed to him. He chose to pledge Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest fraternities, with chapters on almost 230 campuses in the U.S. and Canada.

While it included other activities such as a scavenger hunt, much of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s initiation revolved around alcohol. After Thanksgiving, fraternity members summoned Starkey and 16 other pledges to the garage of an off-campus house for “Brown Bag Night.” Tarps covered couches to protect them from vomit, according to court testimony. Pledges sat in a circle, with a trash can at the center.

At 10:30 p.m., each pledge was given a brown bag with cans and bottles of alcohol. “Drink up, finish by midnight,” said one upperclassman, according to court testimony.

FIVE TIMES THE LEGAL LIMIT

Starkey’s bag had two 24-ounce cans of Steel Reserve beer, a 16-ounce can of Sparks alcoholic energy drink, and a fifth of rum he was to split with another pledge, one of several Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers who bought the liquor testified. Pledges also shared a bottle of 151-proof Everclear, which is 75.5 percent alcohol. As members chanted “Puke and Rally,” Starkey emptied his bag in 20 minutes, court records show.

After Starkey passed out, fraternity brothers debated whether to drive him to a hospital less than a mile away, members testified. They placed Starkey in a car and removed his Sigma Alpha Epsilon pin, so that doctors wouldn’t know he was at a fraternity event. Then they changed their minds. Rather than go to the hospital, they brought him back in the house and left him on a dirty mattress, according to court records and Starkey’s mother, Julia.

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