Jennings death: 5 years later
By: Benjamin Pomerance
The telephone rang.
Walter Jennings, Jr., casually lifted up the receiver.
It was a conversation he would soon want to forget.
The voice on the other end was saying strange things. Something about a young man, a Plattsburgh State student, who had been pledging a fraternity when something went terribly wrong. Something about that student drinking gallons of water through a funnel until his brain swelled to an abnormally large size.
Something about that student lying in a hospital bed at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, unresponsive and in a coma.
Something about that student being his son.
"The first reaction was that there was a mistake," Jennings said of March 12, 2003, the night he and his wife, Sue, received the phone call that would change their lives. "We didn't know he was in a fraternity. We didn't know he was going through hazing. So we felt like the phone call was supposed to be for somebody else."
They were wrong.
It was their son, Walter Dean Jennings III, lying in that hospital bed, his brain bulging from the water torture initiation of Psi Epsilon Chi, an unrecognized fraternity operating from a house on 72 Broad St., just down the street from the center of campus. It was in that house where he last saw the world, viewing it from eyes weakened from a 10-day pledging process where he was forced to drink alcohol until he vomited, drink substances laced with urine and sit in a confined space with the heat turned as high as 100 degrees. Sleep deprived and mentally fatigued, he was entering his final night of initiation when the brothers of Phi Epsilon Chi began pouring water down his throat, forcing him to drink and drink until he collapsed.
He never recovered.
"They told my wife and I that our son was dead," Jennings said. "There's no other way to tell you what we felt then."
Five years later, he's still at a loss for words.
He talks freely about the boy who grew up in the family home in Gansevoort, N.Y., who played soccer and lacrosse and loved to socialize with his high school pals. He speaks proudly of the young man who went off to PSUC, the alma mater of both of his parents, to pursue a degree either in history or criminal justice. He speaks fondly of a son who valued his friendships, who worked hard for his achievements and who loved the social network of the Plattsburgh campus.
Yet when trying to articulate that one night in March, the well of words simply runs dry.
"I would never say that all fraternities and sororities are bad," Jennings said. "But the hazing is very bad and needs to be stopped. Look what it did." Softly, he added, "That's all I can say."
Not long after the phone rang in the house of Walter and Sue Jennings, another telephone call, carrying the same incomprehensible news, navigated the wires and found its way to a Plattsburgh home. Allison Swick-Duttine, director of fraternity and sorority life and organizational development at PSUC, answered. Like the Jennings family, she would soon want to forget the conversation she would have.
The voice on the other end told her the same strange things the Jennings had heard, a story that began with torture and ended with death. A story Swick-Duttine had spent five years trying to eliminate on campus. A story that made her sick and sad and angry, all at the same time.
"I went numb," Swick-Duttine recalled. "Then I got really emotional, because I knew all of the work we had been doing with fraternities and sororities on campus could be forgotten just because of the tragedy caused by this one unrecognized group."
Since coming to PSUC, Swick-Duttine had struggled to lead a Greek life reformation on the campus. A proud sorority member herself, Swick-Duttine said she was appalled to see the attitudes of the fraternities and sororities when she first arrived on campus in the fall of 1998.
"They were like gangs," Swick-Duttine said. "It was all about defending your symbols, your colors, your territory - and you had to go through some terrible hazing tortures, both physical and mental, to belong."
Through meetings with campus administrators and student Greek life leaders, and the establishment of a student-led Intrafraternity Council, Swick-Duttine began seeing positive changes in the Greek culture of the campus. Groups following the new standards of friendship and service were welcomed; those that did not were no longer recognized by the college. Psi Epsilon Chi was one of the fraternities who fell into the latter category.
"They (Psi Epsilon Chi) were not recognized by the college because they didn't meet certain minimum standards that we had for fraternities and sororities," Swick-Duttine said. "We asked other groups not to affiliate themselves with them and sent out letters to parents of incoming students asking them not to pledge with this organization."
Raising the bar, Swick-Duttine said, greatly improved the quality of Greek life at PSUC. While certain fraternities and sororities unrecognized by the college continued to operate, including Psi Epsilon Chi, the director of fraternity and sorority life said she was noticing a marked improvement in Greek organizations at PSUC by 2003.
Then came that night in March, a night when phone calls bearing tragic news sent shock waves throughout the state of New York.
"Suddenly, our campus was famous for all the wrong reasons," Swick-Duttine said. "And at the center of this negative press, this death, were our fraternities and sororities."
To this day, people are debating why.
Swick-Duttine believes the problem arose from the continuation of unrecognized fraternities and sororities on campus. According to Center for Fraternity and Sorority Life records, at least two unrecognized groups were operating at PSUC at the time of Jennings' death, and several other local and national Greek chapters had operated without college recognition at various times since 1995. Aside from sending letters to students and parents about the unrecognized groups, Swick-Duttine said landlords were asked to have the unrecognized groups leave their houses. Most of the homeowners, she added, did not comply.
"We were making efforts," Swick-Duttine said, "but we needed to crack down even more."
Yet Psi Epsilon Chi, Inc. President Kevin E. Jones, leader of the landlord group that owned the fraternity's house on 72 Broad St., believes otherwise. Allowing Psi Epsilon Chi to operate after the college jettisoned it, Jones said, was the only thing he and his fellow owners could do."
From the beginning, we were absentee landlords," Jones said of his group, made up entirely of adult Psi Epsilon Chi brothers. "We had the house and wanted to keep our fraternity going, to keep the memories we had at Plattsburgh State alive. Our job was never to monitor the goings-on in that house."
Psi Epsilon Chi, Inc. met twice a year with the student members, Jones said, with only one of those meetings being held in Plattsburgh. Jones said the group knew the house was being cleaned up for these annual inspection meetings, all of which were announced well in advance, but never realized that the values of the new members had changed so drastically from his days in the fraternity. "
This fraternity was actually founded by students who wanted to get away from the physical tortures used by other frats," Jones explained. "Part of our pledging was that we couldn't drink any alcohol for four weeks, so we were sacrificing something to become part of this organization. How things became so far removed from our original vision is beyond me."
Still, Jones said, some of the problems could have been corrected if the PSUC leadership had not "given up" on the fraternity."
By not recognizing Psi Epsilon Chi, the college gave up any control over the house and its inhabitants," Jones said. "And we didn't encourage the students to seek re- recognition from the college because we didn't see what we'd gain by it. The college had been giving us trouble about things that were none of their business, like incidents that occurred off-campus involving the Psi Epsilon brothers, and the current leadership of the house didn't believe they were being treated fairly by the college. So we told them, 'Well, why go back if you don't like how you're being treated?'"
Jones said he often conferred with PSUC administrators if he heard of incidents involving the house, but always heard a different version of the stories from the Psi Epsilon Chi brothers. Not being in Plattsburgh, he explained, made it difficult to know who to believe."So we stuck to renting the house," Jones said. "We didn't like some things that we were hearing about what was happening there, and we spoke to the fraternity leaders about it, but the bottom line is that we couldn't really do anything. If the college hadn't stopped recognizing the fraternity, perhaps they could have stepped in more, but they gave up that authority."
Serving in this removed capacity, Jones added, made it all the more surprising that he was served an indictment to appear in court after Jennings's death. "
The whole affair," Jones said, "is a case study in what not to do. Nothing about it was good in any way."
Yet Swick-Duttine believes plenty of good things came in the wake of the tragic incident. The memory of Walter Dean Jennings lives on at PSUC, she said, embodied by positive changes still being implemented today.
"Most of the policies and procedures that we have today, we had before this death occurred," Swick-Duttine said. "But Dean's death woke people up. Since that happened, the culture on our campus has changed dramatically."
Today, Swick-Duttine pointed out, no unrecognized fraternities or sororities operate on the PSUC campus. Enrollment in Greek organizations is higher than ever, as is the mean grade point average of Greek members (2.81 in the fall of 2007) and the amount of fundraising dollars solicited by fraternities and sororities (more than $40,000 in the past year). Most importantly, she said, the culture of hazing that once existed at PSUC has all but disappeared.
"Are there always going to be some incidents? Absolutely," Swick-Duttine said. "But the fraternities and sororities are doing a much better job of policing themselves, and the campus is doing a better job of watching them, too. Ultimately, though, the praise goes to the students. They're the ones who made the decision to change. They're the only ones who could."
And in a Gansevoort home, a family whose lives were shattered by a telephone call is being healed by these decisions. Walter Jennings, Jr. said he and his wife pay close attention to the reforms taking place at PSUC, particularly the ones mentioned in a recent article praising Swick-Duttine for her anti-hazing reforms.
Reading about these improvements, Jennings said, brings a message of hope to his family.
"These are big steps in the right direction," Jennings said. "Nothing good comes out of hazing, and the college is doing a better job communicating that message to students." He stopped. "That's all we can now - that the future improves from the past."
© Copyright 2008 Cardinal Points