Sunday, June 28, 2009

Arizona Sig Eps Hazing Documented

UA Fraternity's Hazing Documented: Sigma Phi Epsilon was out of control, investigation found

Jun 28, 2009 (The Arizona Daily Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Pledges attending Sigma Phi Epsilon's History Night" last fall got a lot more than a lesson in the fraternity's traditions...

Divided into groups of 10, the pledges rotated through rooms of the house behind University Medical Center and were asked to squat with their backs pressed against the walls and learn about the goals of pledging.

The pledges were asked to memorize traditions and recall one another's names while being yelled at and intimidated. And when one pledge didn't behave as he should -- members thought he was disrespectful -- a dozen pledges were lined up and slapped one by one.

When a pledge ducked to avoid a slap, he was hit a second time and then had his shirt ripped off.

The episode was one of about 15 hazing incidents detailed in a University of Arizona investigation that ended in March with one of the largest and oldest fraternities, known informally as Sig Ep, getting booted from campus for three years.

More than 300 pages of documents released to the Arizona Daily Star through a public-records request paint a picture of a fraternity out of control as an alumni board and executive officers clashed with ex-members booted for their bad behavior.

The power struggle created an environment in which pledges were slapped, kicked and forced to drink beer until they vomited as part of an initiation program.

It also set the stage for an unregulated off-campus party at which a UA student reported being sexually assaulted in a pledge's apartment after she was given a date-rape drug, the investigation concluded.

But the former president of the fraternity, Tyler Babcock, said the UA investigation took events out of context and said that no hazing occurred. While he wouldn't discuss specific incidents, he said the university showed only one side of the story.

"The university drew an image of us being rowdy, crazy kids that are running around and partying," he said. "It was a very organized house, and all the kids in the house are great kids."

However, a letter from the UA that is signed by fraternity leaders states that they agree that the allegations are factually correct.

It's not clear whether the UA punished any members of the fraternity for the hazing, alcohol and reported sexual-assault violations or if there were any sanctions against it other than losing recognition on campus until 2012.

Individual student punishment is protected by federal law, and the identities of students interviewed by UA officials were blacked out of the copies of the investigation the Star obtained.

The same law, known as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, also prevents the UA from disclosing any further details about the reported sexual assault, said Carol Thompson, dean of students. Thompson would say only that the UA completed its investigation into the incident.

It's not clear whether police investigated the incident. Neither the Tucson nor the UA police departments would provide information on whether they investigated the incident, despite being given a week to do so.

The chapter's adviser, Dan Knauss, said in a lengthy statement that most of the hazing was conducted by students who had been kicked out of the fraternity after the university put the chapter on probation.

"Unfortunately, these individuals were not confronted by the new officers, to the extent they were aware of their activities," he wrote in an e-mail.

"This is not to say that there weren't violations of the university's code by some current members, primarily involving alcohol and minor hazing."

Multiple requests for comment from Sig Ep's national headquarters went unanswered.

The documents detail a wide range of hazing, including:

--Mandating that pledges carry cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and Sour Patch Kids candy for members of the fraternity.

--Requiring pledges to be at the fraternity house from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays unless they had class or a written excuse for where they were.

--Making pledges clean the fraternity house as well as a member's off-campus apartment after a party.

--Forcing pledges to perform headstands near walls and wall-sits while older members yelled at them and in one instance attempted to kick a pledge's legs out from underneath him.

The most serious violations revolved around daily song practice, during which pledges sang traditional fraternity songs while members listened.

The investigation details that members threw paper balls at pledges, shot spitballs at them and pushed them while they sang. Some members threw ice down the pledges' shirts, the investigation said.

On Fridays, the underage pledges were forced to drink beer while they practiced the songs. The pledges were told to drink until they vomited, with garbage cans put out for them to use, the investigation details.

After they finished vomiting, the pledges would have to resume singing and drinking, according to the investigation.

Babcock said that none of the pledges was required to participate in any activities the university classified as hazing. They were only encouraged to do so.

"There was no real hazing," he said. "Everybody was always given the choice, and the choices were not detrimental to active status in the house."

Then there was Bayonet Night, at which about 30 pledges were lined up and blindfolded at the fraternity house. They were marched in line to a nearby basketball court and told to wait in silence.

After about 30 minutes, the pledges removed their blindfolds and realized one of them was gone. The missing pledge had been cut -- "blackballed," in the fraternity's parlance.

The investigation indicates that members took the pledge away, with other pledges interviewed by officials speculating he was removed for either not meeting fraternity standards or because he was awkward around women at fraternity parties.

Babcock said there was nothing menacing about the ritual and that the ceremony was similar to those conducted by other fraternities on campus.

He said the decision to part ways with the pledge was mutual. "He was not forcefully removed. If the kid doesn't meet standards, it is expressed verbally and very calmly."

Babcock also blamed the divide that developed in the house on the university investigation, not tension between former members and those who remained after the national organization intervened in 2007.

After the fraternity was placed on probation for hazing that year, the national fraternity formed an alumni advisory group and reviewed every member. More than 70 were booted.

But those individuals would still show up to fraternity events and recruitment activities, with many responsible for the hazing, according to the investigation.

Babcock said that in the wake of the membership shake-up, it was hard for younger members of the fraternity to know who was allowed at the house.

There never was any confrontation between the former members and those at the house, and the hazing attributed to the ex-members was blown out of proportion, Babcock said.

The investigation details that several members and ex-members intimidated pledges both during their initiation and after the UA began its investigation.

One member quit after being described as gay. He was ridiculed, and members used slurs to describe him, according to the investigation.

The pledges who cooperated with UA investigators were labeled traitors and threatened, with one pledge saying he was told by a member that "we will hunt you down with masks and kill you if you ever tell," according to the report.

The member later denied threatening the student.

On StarNet: Log on to www.azstarnet.com/pdf to view copies of the summary of the UA's investigation into Sigma Phi Epsilon and a statement from the local chapter's adviser.

Other Fraternities Booted

Sigma Phi Epsilon was the first of three fraternities to be booted from campus by University of Arizona officials during the 2008-09 school year.

The chapters of Kappa Sigma and Kappa Alpha Order also lost their university recognition after UA officials said the organizations violated campus policies.

UA officials kicked Kappa Sigma off campus for five years after several purported hazing violations that involved alcohol. A national official has said the fraternity was appealing.

Kappa Alpha Order was suspended for 18 months after an investigation found the chapter hosted unregistered parties and created other safety concerns.

UA officials have refused to describe the details of either investigation or the events that led to the suspensions.

The Arizona Daily Star filed a public-records request for files related to both investigations at the same time it asked for the reports on Sigma Phi Epsilon. UA officials had not released the other investigations as of Friday.

DID YOU KNOW

The Sigma Phi Epsilon national fraternity was founded in 1901 and has chapters at 260 college campuses across the country, with an estimated undergraduate membership of 13,500.

It is the largest fraternity in the country in terms of undergraduate enrollment, according to the fraternity's Web site.

The University of Arizona chapter, located behind University Medical Center in the 1400 block of North Vine Avenue, had 85 members during a spring 2008 census, according to the national fraternity's Web site.

Contact reporter Aaron Mackey at amackey@azstarnet.com or at 807-8012.