Sunday, April 15, 2007

Critics: Frats refuse to reform

Rider student's death isn't the first and won't be the last, hazing foes say

It is sometime after midnight as 14 pledges complete a solemn fraternity initiation ritual and are led to the basement of the fraternity house.

The booze laid out for them must be finished before the pledges leave the house, the young men are told. Most get sick as they drink, but one is sicker than the rest. He vomits. Fraternity brothers, fearing the freshman may choke, lay the incoherent 18-year-old face down on a couch.

Some time later, help is called.

But it is too late; the pledge is dead. Authorities later learn his blood-alcohol level reached .434, more than five times the legal limit to drive a car.

While some of the circumstances sound eerily similar to those reported by friends and law enforcement officials in the recent alcohol poisoning death of 18-year-old Rider University freshman Gary DeVercelly, the death of that pledge, freshman James Callahan, took place 19 years before, on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

As a result of Callahan's death, 15 Lambda Chi Alpha brothers were indicted for hazing and his mother, Jane Callahan, filed a lawsuit naming the fraternity, the university, the national chapter and the liquor store that sold the members the booze that killed her son.

While no charges have been filed in the Rider case, investigators have labeled the Long Beach, Calif., native's death at the Lawrence school a possible hazing incident.

Regardless of the outcome, anti-hazing advocates say the system designed to protect pledges like DeVercelly and Callahan and dozens of others who have died over the years is flawed and won't be fixed until the fraternities and sororities themselves admit the problem.

"I believe the fraternity industry has known the shortcomings (of its risk-management policies) for a long time and has done nothing to fix it," said Douglas Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has represented numerous victims of hazing and alcohol-related deaths nationwide.

There is a "duck and cover" mentality among universities and fraternities when an alcohol- or hazing-related death occurs, Fierberg said, and for that reason little has changed.

In an effort to deal with liability issues, a group of 47 national fraternities and sororities has banded together in an organization known as the Fraternal Information Program Group. According to the FIPG Web site, the organization's goal is "to be the one-stop resource for risk-management education ..." for the entire campus community.

The Times made several efforts to reach the group's officers by phone and e-mail over two days, but members -- all of whom also are officers in national fraternities and sororities -- did not reply. Likewise, representatives of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, which is under investigation in connection with DeVercelly's death, also declined comment.

A spokeswoman for Phi Kappa Tau's national office in Oxford, Ohio, also did not return several calls and e-mails, preferring instead to issue a series of statements in support of DeVercelly and his family. The national chapter's president, who is listed as a director of the FIPG, also did not return a call or e-mail.

However, FIPG has issued a risk-management policy that all 47 member organizations -- including DeVercelly's Phi Kappa Tau and Callahan's Lambda Chi Alpha -- adhere to.
The policy addresses issues such as hazing, alcohol abuse and sexual abuse and harassment, according to the group's Web site.

Among the tenets are 10 related to alcohol use, including the requirement for all members to adhere to state laws regarding drinking. The policy restricts in-house activities and prohibits drinking games. It also forbids the use of alcohol in pledge events.

But the policy does not require the fraternities to ban alcohol and instead puts students in charge of policing themselves, Fierberg says.

He said it is predicated on keeping dues-paying members and alumni happy rather than on pledge and member safety.

"For at least eight years, the industry has known that alcohol-free housing is the safe way to run a fraternity," Fierberg said, citing a 1997 study done by a national organization of fraternities that recommended dry housing across the country.

"But they won't go dry. What they prefer to do instead is create a policy full of holes implemented by underage, ill-trained fraternity members who have no knowledge whatsoever of the dangers involved in managing alcohol policies in fraternities," he said.

The organizations' focus on protecting themselves is also evident in the "Risk Management Manual" put out by FIPG, Fierberg says.

Among its 80 or so pages are sections dealing with the role of various fraternity officers and policies on hazing and drinking.

But the most tell-tale section of the book, Fierberg said, is one called "Crisis Management Plan," which instructs members how to act in the event of an emergency.

Among the instructions is one directing members to immediately close the house and limit outgoing phone calls if a tragedy occurs.

"Do not discuss the situation until the National Representative, chapter advisor, or housing corporation president arrives," the manual reads. "Instruct your members to make no statements to anyone other than fraternity/sorority officials.

"As the president, you make any appropriate statements to the media after the situation is under control and you have discussed the content of your statement with school and fraternity/sorority officials and have been given permission by the National Office."

There is even a section on what to do if a member becomes ill or dies and another if a member attempts suicide.

"Only with the permission and instructions of your National Office should you call the family to offer sympathy on behalf of the chapter," it says.

The brothers of Phi Kappa Tau seem to have followed at least some of the manual's recommendations when dealing with DeVercelly's death.

After news broke of the pledge's death, fraternity members said they were told not to talk to the media, instead issuing a statement through the national office. A representative of the national chapter was dispatched to Rider to help deal with the crisis, and the house was closed.

The risk manual, which the FIPG site lists as under revision, can be found on numerous college, university and fraternity Web sites nationwide.

But given the history of fraternity-related deaths, it is little wonder that the organizations are concerned with managing the risk. There has been at least one fraternity-related death every year since 1970 except last year, according to Hank Nuwer, a Franklin College professor who tracks fraternity hazing incidents.

In previous fraternity-related deaths, members faced criminal charges resulting in jail time and national chapters and universities have been hit with civil lawsuits totaling millions of dollars.

In Callahan's death, 15 Lambda Chi Alpha members were indicted on hazing charges, eventually completing a pretrial intervention program. Callahan's mother Jane settled a civil suit with the fraternity for nearly $400,000.

In 1995, Princeton University was sued by a student who had been drinking at student eating clubs and fraternities off campus before climbing atop an NJ Transit train and grabbing hold of a metal device that connects the train to the wires above.

The resulting 11,000-volt shock cost the student both legs and part of his left arm. His lawsuit named several parties, including the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and the university and was eventually settled by all parties for $5.7 million.

In 2004, a Miami-Dade County jury awarded $12.6 million to the parents of a drunken University of Miami freshman who drowned swimming across a lake in a swim organized by two members of Kappa Sigma. The suit was later settled for a confidential amount.

And in February 2005, Matthew Carrington, a pledge in the Chi Tau fraternity at California State University at Chico died during a pledging ritual that involved drinking gallons of water while exercising in a cold basement.

In that case, prosecutors filed felony charges and four Chi Tau members received sentences ranging from 90 days to a year in jail.

Experts say that, like those cases, the potential liability in a death like DeVercelly's is enormous.

"In a civil situation it comes down to 'foreseeability,'" said Mitch Crane, a former judge in Pennsylvania and a staunch anti-hazing advocate. "If this is an activity that resulted in an injury, not only is the organization that delivered the activity responsible, but anyone who had the authority to oversee it would be responsible if they could foresee it."

Crane said depending on the outcome of the investigation, Rider University itself could face liability because it is a private institution.

Officials at the university have said they cannot address the circumstances surrounding DeVercelly's death or potential ramifications because of the ongoing investigation.

To begin to deal with the fallout from the tragic death, the university has established a presidential panel charged with reviewing policies on campus related to drinking and fraternities. The panel is made up mostly of university faculty and administration and is set to begin meeting this week. Officials said the panel's recommendations should be complete before the end of the semester, sometime next month.

Faced with similar tragedies, reactions from universities and fraternities throughout the nation have been varied.

At Rutgers, officials shuttered the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and banished it from campus. At Princeton, where a student was hospitalized after a 1990 fraternity drinking party, students were punished, but officials could do little to the fraternity as the Greek letter organizations operate independently of the university.

Fraternities themselves also have taken on the dual problems of hazing and binge drinking. Faced with the risks involved, at least one national fraternity has gone alcohol-free and another has abolished pledging altogether.

At Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., the site of two fraternity-related deaths including one highly publicized hazing incident in 1978, a panel similar to the one formed at Rider recommended abolishing the Greek system completely.

What will result from DeVercelly's tragic death is unknown. But what is sure, Fierberg and others say, is that until the system is reformed and hazing and alcohol abuse are curtailed, the laid-back freshman from Long Beach will not be the last to die.

"All of this is a secret until the parents get a call that their son or daughter is dead," Fierberg said. "Unfortunately, most parents don't find out until it's too late."
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