Blog

Penn State Frat Hit by Judge’s Statewide Ban in Hazing Case

Pi Delta Psi fraternity faces a 10 year ban from operating any chapters in Pennsylvania.

Doug Fierberg, who has represented many clients in lawsuits against fraternities and is representing the Dengs in multiple civil suits against Pi Delta Psi and its members, also was heartened by the rulings.

“It recognizes that chapters are agents and mere extensions of national fraternities and they are responsible for the injury and death caused across this country for decades,” he said.

Read More on Philly.com

Michael Deng Case: Fraternity, Four Men to be Sentenced in Hazing Death

Doug Fierberg, an attorney for Deng’s family, said prosecutors in the Piazza case could learn from the outcome of the Deng case and Pi Delta Psi case sentencing.
“These are two of the higher-profile circumstances involving the prosecution of hazing,” said Fierberg. Prosecutors in the Piazza case, he said, “might as well learn” from the outcome of the Deng case.

Fierberg said he expects the Deng case “will help clarify” some things ahead of the Piazza case and could set “a number of precedents.”

Read more on CNN.

19 YEAR OLD STUDENT FOUND DEAD AT FRESNO STATE FRATERNITY

Student dies after visiting delta sigma phi fraternity at California State University – Fresno.

The death of a 19 year old at Fresno State University Delta Sigma Phi fraternity house has sparked a police investigation.

With any devastating circumstance, questions mount – how does a community prevent future tragedies and who should be held responsible?

The student, whose name is not being released at this time, reportedly lay unconscious on the Delta Sigma Pi fraternity house porch before being taken to St. Agnes hospital where he was pronounced dead. 

Fresno Police say by the time they received the medical call for help the young man had passed away. The investigation is ongoing.

Douglas Fierberg – a nationally acclaimed wrongful death attorney representing clients who have sued universities, national fraternities and local chapter members for alcohol and drug-related student deaths – cautions:  

“Even if a party is held at an off-campus fraternity house, the hosts and the organization may still be liable. These organizations need to be rendered safe, there is no excuse for not intervening.”

Fierberg, who is regularly featured in The New York Times to discuss the perils of fraternity hazing violence and death explains:

“The central problem is that in a fraternity house, kids, most of who cannot legally drink, are in charge of getting and serving alcohol.”

Having represented victims of similar tragedies associated with fraternities, our hope is that the friends and family of the victim find answers related to how this terrible loss transpired.

 

Hazing Report Leads to Sexual Assault Case at Oklahoma High School

Oklahoma High School Officials Waited Eight Days Before Reporting Hazing Sexual Assault of Student Athlete.

Officials at an Bixby High School in Bixby, Oklahoma, failed to promptly report the sexual assault of a 16-year-old football player by several teammates.  Officials started their investigation after hearing of “an alleged hazing incident,” and waited eight days before contacting police, records show.  As reported by the Associate Press:

The Nov. 2 report, released Wednesday by Bixby High School, said the Tulsa-area school’s investigation began Oct. 26. It included interviews with the boy and his mother, who told officials that a teammate had inserted a pool cue into his anus through his shorts.

An affidavit filed last month by investigators provided a fuller account of the assault, which took place in September during a team function at the superintendent’s house. The football player told detectives he was assaulted by one player while three others held him down. Investigators say a fifth player recorded the assault on a cellphone, and another blocked a door, according to the affidavit.

The boy also told investigators in the earlier affidavit that he had been assaulted in a similar manner during a team function at the superintendent’s house in 2016. The Nov. 2 report by the school references “two separate occasions” in which “a hazing incident resulted.”

Authorities have seized the cellphones of several administrators and football players and ordered emails from the superintendent, principal, athletic director and football coach. They said last month that the delay by school officials in reporting the assault may have jeopardized investigators’ ability to recover key evidence.

A search warrant said some school officials may have tried to “not report the incident at all” — which is a misdemeanor offense under Oklahoma law.

Monica Beck, a nationally acclaimed K-12 hazing and sexual assault victims attorney who represents the family of the Ooltewah High School rape victim who was sodomized with a pool cue by teammates  explains in a written statement to the Times Free Press: 

“Schools are required by federal and state law to prohibit violent hazing and gender-based violence. This young man had a right to participate on the basketball team without sacrificing his physical and emotional safety to hazing traditions long known and tolerated by school officials.”

Beck filed a lawsuit in Federal Court on behalf of the victim stating Ooltewah District Administrators and employees knew a culture of abuse had been taking place for years, “and their failure to remediate this rampant abuse resulted in escalation of male student athlete’s harassment, hazing, and assaults of teammates.”

Having represented victims of similar tragedies associated with hazing and sexual assault, our hope is that all those involved are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law – students seeking to participate in school teams and programs should be protected from hazing and sexual violence;  hazing is not a matter of simple “horseplay,” or validly explained away by the notions that “boys will be boys.”

FSU Among Multiple Universities Working Towards Change Following Student Deaths

Doug Fireberg responds to Florida State University’s ban on campus groups serving alcohol in wake of student Andrew Coffey’s death.

Florida State University is one of at least four schools reeling from incidents this year where students have died due to alcohol, hazing, or both.

Florida State, Penn State, LSU, and now Texas State, have lost a student this year to what some consider a “pervasive problem.”

“At least 18 drinks in one hour and 22 minutes”, stated Stacy Parks Miller, Centre County District Attorney. That was the shocking revelation this week at Penn State, as prosecutors leveled charges against even more members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. All were tied to the night drunken pledge Tim Piazza broke his skull falling down a flight of stairs.

Jim Piazza, the father of Tim, said, “We’re making holiday plans without our son Tim, because of your actions.”

We are still waiting to find out what happened to Florida State student Andrew Coffey. The Pi Kappa Phi pledge was found dead at a house off Buena Vista drive on November 3.

Tallahassee Police Chief Michael Deleo said, “Although there are indications alcohol may have been a factor in this case, we are awaiting the results of an autopsy and no cause of death has been determined.”

One FSU student explained, “It’s a tragedy that happened.” When asked if they were shocked by it, they responded, “No, because fraternity and sorority parties can get a little crazy and out of hand.”

Coffey’s death, and a subsequent drug raid, not only led to the closure of Pi Kappa Phi, but a temporary halt to all Greek activities and a ban on campus groups serving alcohol.

When students were asked about their thoughts on President Thrasher’s decision, opinions were split. Some claimed that not all fraternities were at fault, one admitted that something had to be done, and one student said that although they understand the reasoning, it “still kinda sucks”.

President Thrasher admitted, “We can’t police 42,000 students, and I don’t intend to do that. That’s not what we’re here to do. We’re here to educate them. But on things like this, they’ve got to be a part of the solution.”

“I don’t think that’s the solution,” claimed Attorney Doug Fierberg, in response to the ban. Fierberg has represented nearly 50 parents nationwide whose children have been targets of campus assaults and fraternity hazing. He’s skeptical the ban will yield anything but a short hiatus in the party culture.

“They’re dangerous, have been dangerous, and are not known to be able to solve their own problems,” said Fierberg. “In the 1980’s, fraternities were the sixth worst insurance risk in the country, just behind hazardous waste haulers.”

A friend of Maxwell Gruver, the student who lost his life at LSU, asked, “If you’re supposed to be a club full of friends and life-lasting relationships, why did his life have to end so early?”

LSU resumed social activities a month after Gruver’s death, but the President ordered an alcohol ban within days after discovering some students hadn’t “absorbed the severity and seriousness” of the current situation.

When asked if banning alcohol at fraternities and sororities is on the table, FSU President Thrasher responded, “I don’t know. That’s what we’re going to have this conversation with them about.”

“Drew’s parents have expressed their hope that his death will be a catalyst for change,” Thrasher continued.

Coffey’s family hopes that “no family will ever have to experience the avoidable heartache of losing a child in the most shining moments of their lives.”

Jordan Doersam, a friend of Coffey, stated, “It’s been really rough. Nothing prepares you for losing one of your best friends. We’re all just trying to get through it.”

Penn State, which is led by former FSU President Eric Barron, is making drastic changes this year.

The university is assuming oversight of fraternities and sororities, delaying rushing for freshmen, limiting the number of socials with alcohol, hiring compliance monitors, and posting Greek Chapter score cards online.

FSU is telling us that all these options are under consideration, but no decisions have been made.

The Conspiracy of Inaction on Sexual Abuse and Harassment

Great op-ed piece from the New York Times regarding the vital importance of reporting suspected sexual harassment in K-12 schools, and the terrible consequences of remaining silent.

The Conspiracy of Inaction on Sexual Abuse and Harassment by David Leonhardt of the New York Times:

I caught the journalism bug in high school. I was fortunate to be a scholarship student at a rigorous New York private school with a weekly newspaper, and some of the older students I admired taught me the power that the written word could have.

When we complained verbally to teachers or administrators about a problem, they could ignore us. When we put our arguments in writing, they tended to pay attention. So we became teenage crusaders, inveighing against perceived injustices. Sometimes, the subjects were sophomoric (“censorship” of the talent show), but often they were serious (inequality, racism, South African divestment).

Three decades later, I look back on the experience with deep gratitude. I also look back with haunting regret.

For all of our crusading, we ignored the biggest story at the school. We were aware of the rumors — the teachers who made comments about girls’ bodies, the teacher suspiciously friendly with female students, the music teacher solicitous of male students.

But we never wrote about it. As best as I can remember, we didn’t even talk about writing about it. We didn’t know how. It seemed too dark, too uncertain.

In 2012, the truth came out. My school — Horace Mann — had tolerated sexual molestation for decades. Administrators whose most solemn responsibility was protecting children instead chose to look the other way and protect child abusers. The music teacher, a cultish figure named Johannes Somary, was the worst abuser during my time. One of his victims later committed suicide.

The current torrent of harassment revelations — following Jodi Kantor’s and Megan Twohey’s Times exposé of Harvey Weinstein — has caused me to think back on high school again, because every big case has had something in common with Horace Mann.

People knew.

Read More

Florida State University Pledge’s Death Sparks Investigation, Suspension of Fraternity

Andrew Coffey, a Florida State University Student and Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity Pledge, Was Found Dead Friday Morning After Fraternity Party.

The death of a Andrew Coffey at Florida State University has sparked a police investigation and the suspension of the national Pi Kappa Phi fraternal organization’s local chapter, Beta Eta, officials said.

With any devastating circumstance, questions mount – how does a community prevent future tragedies and who should be held responsible?

The student, 20-year-old Andrew Coffey, was found Friday morning around 10:23 a.m. ET after the Tallahassee Police Department received a call about an unresponsive person at a home on Buena Vista Drive.

Coffey was pronounced dead at the scene, and an investigation into his death is ongoing, police said.

Douglas Fierberg – a nationally acclaimed wrongful death attorney representing clients who have sued universities, national fraternities and local chapter members for alcohol-related student deaths – cautions:  

“Even if a party is held at an off-campus fraternity house, the hosts and the organization may still be liable. These organizations need to be rendered safe, there is no excuse for not intervening.”

Fierberg was featured on CNN to discuss the perils of fraternity hazing violence and death:

“The dangers of fraternities are not myths. They are reality. The failure by universities to tell the truth about the risks facing students in fraternities specifically related to hazing misuse and abuse of alcohol and other misconduct is the new battleground.” Fierberg tells CNN. “It needs to be changed nationally, because parents and students are entitled to timely and accurate information about the risks they face.  And universities have no basis, morally or legally, to withhold that information from the university community.”

Fierberg said universities violate their duties to students and parents when they create websites about Greek life and only include feel-good information, instead of an accurate and complete picture:

“[Universities] won’t give you the full information because it will confirm that what you believe is right. Of course you have a zero tolerance policy. [Hazing is] illegal. … But why wouldn’t you tell parents it’s still going on?”

Having represented victims of similar tragedies associated with fraternities, our hope is that the Coffey family finds answers related to how this terrible loss transpired.

Our thoughts are with Andrew’s family and community during this extremely difficult time.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar Discusses #MeToo in ESPN Article

Nancy Hogshead-Makar:  #MeToo Shows Need for Tighter Rules in Club and Olympic Sports.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist swimmer, is the chief executive officer of Champion Women, an organization that advocates for girls and women in sports. She is a civil rights attorney who has successfully represented athletes in precedent-setting legislation and is one of the nation’s foremost experts on gender equity in sports.

Last week, McKayla Maroney tweeted a message with the hashtag #MeToo, alleging she was sexually abused by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. With her disclosure, she not only identified herself as one of the more than 140 women who have said they’ve been abused by Nassar, who has plead guilty to child pornography charges, but she also re-emphasized that the ubiquitous nature of abuse reaches even the highest levels.

Numerous athletes from all types of sports and women working in athletics have joined the #MeToo movement, including another Olympic gold medalist, gymnast Tatiana Gutsu.

Sexual harassment and abuse in sports aren’t novel or surprising to most of us inside athletics. But the #MeToo movement, reignited after accusations of sexual harassment against longtime Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, has once again brought to light the constant objectification of women in sports.

Coaches and reporters tweeted about being groped or flashed, and athletes tweeted repeatedly about the entitlement of their male peer athletes and, in particular, about powerful, sexually demanding coaches. These coaches wield Weinstein-level power over athletes with playing time, scholarships, skill coaching or even a berth on an Olympic team. They can make or break an athlete’s career. As Maroney wrote, “I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting.”

#MeToo.

I am a rape survivor. And in my professional work as an attorney, I have been involved in trying to address sexual abuse in club and Olympic sports for seven years.

As a lawyer representing victims of campus sexual violence, I became familiar with the legal protections under Title IX that schools owe to their students. Regardless of whether there is a criminal investigation, a school must take prompt and effective steps to end the sexual violence, prevent its recurrence and address its effects. Frequently, my job is to make sure violence didn’t interfere with a student’s academic trajectory, that the student could stay in school and graduate without his or her GPA taking a hit. I try to ensure the availability of the types of accommodations Duke University made for me after I was raped in 1981.

Read More

Doug Fierberg in TIME, discusses fraternity hazing and reform efforts

Doug Fierberg featured in TIME story spotlighting fraternity hazing and reform efforts: “[Students are] still dying and still getting sexually assaulted and still getting traumatically injured—and for reasons the fraternity industry could control but chooses not to.”

The TIME article – College Students Keep Dying Because of Fraternity Hazing.  Why Is It So Hard to Stop?” – features the stories of fraternity pledges Timothy Piazza and Maxwell Gruver, both of whom tragically lost their lives in fraternity hazing incidents less than a year apart:

Tim Piazza spent the early-morning hours of Feb. 3 curled up in pain, clutching his head and trying to stand. A Beta Theta Pi pledge at Penn State University, he had been forced to drink a toxic amount of alcohol in an alleged hazing ritual known as “the gauntlet,” according to a grand jury report. He then tumbled headfirst down a flight of stairs. Members of the fraternity carried his limp body to a couch, where they poured liquid on his face and slapped him in apparent attempts to wake him up. Security-camera footage later showed Piazza repeatedly falling and hitting his head, and then lying on the ground alone, holding his stomach. By the time fraternity members finally sought medical aid, according to the Centre County, Pennsylvania, grand jury findings, Piazza had suffered traumatic injuries to his brain and spleen. He died the next morning in an intensive-care unit. He was 19.

A year and a half earlier, the New Jersey teenager had followed his older brother to Penn State, where he began studying to become an engineer. He was known to his friends as a “big goofy kid” who always looked out for others. When he decided to join Beta Theta Pi—whose stated mission is “to develop men of principle for a principled life”—in the winter of his sophomore year, he was searching for community on a campus with more than 40,000 students. “He was looking for that brotherhood and just another place that he belonged here. It is a big place, and finding your group is tough sometimes,” says Bennet Brooks, one of Piazza’s sophomore-year roommates. “That was where he thought he was going to find it.”

Instead, Piazza became the latest casualty in a disturbingly persistent pattern of fraternity misconduct that has resulted in grievous injuries, numerous lawsuits and dozens of fatalities. Nineteen-year-old pledge Tucker Hipps died in 2014 after falling from a bridge during a predawn run with Clemson University’s Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by his parents, who say he was a victim of hazing, an allegation the fraternity denied before settling the lawsuit this year. Eighteen-year-old Ryan Abele died in 2016 after falling down a flight of stairs when he was ordered to clean the basement of the Sigma Nu fraternity house at the University of Nevada, Reno, while “highly intoxicated,” according to a lawsuit filed by his parents; the national fraternity later revoked the chapter’s charter for alcohol and hazing violations. And in mid-September, Maxwell Gruver, an 18-year-old Phi Delta Theta pledge, died in what police are investigating as a possible fraternity hazing incident at Louisiana State University.

Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College who has researched and written extensively about hazing, has documented 33 hazing deaths involving fraternities nationwide in the past decade. The federal government does not track hazing incidents, but Nuwer, a member of HazingPrevention.Org’s founding board of directors, is often cited by hazing experts. In the wake of each death, a familiar pattern repeats: the victim’s parents express outrage, students mourn at a candlelight vigil and university leaders promise reforms—but too often, critics say, little changes.

“[Students are] still dying and still getting sexually assaulted and still getting traumatically injured—and for reasons the fraternity industry could control but chooses not to,” says Doug Fierberg, a lawyer who has represented dozens of families in wrongful death and injury lawsuits against fraternities.

To critics, the string of recent deaths raises the question of why it’s so hard to reform Greek life in a way that ensures student safety. The answer begins with deep-pocketed fraternity alumni who fondly remember the traditions of their fraternity days and now hold sway over their alma maters. In addition, fraternities owe their staying power to influential national Greek organizations that lobby for lenient policies and to fraternity members who are devoted to what has become a staple of the American college experience. Greek life also has deep roots in powerful institutions: at least four members of President Trump’s Cabinet are fraternity alumni, and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was a member of Phi Gamma Delta. In Congress, 155 lawmakers are Greek alumni, according to the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee. Additionally, a majority of Fortune 500 executives were members of fraternities, according to data cited in Alan DeSantis’ 2007 book Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige.

Even after the tragedy of a student death, universities often defend the fraternity system as a whole. “I can’t imagine a fraternity-free Penn State,” Damon Sims, the school’s vice president for student affairs, told the student newspaper, the Daily Collegian, months after Piazza’s death as Penn State rolled out controversial sanctions on the Greek system. “The fraternity and sorority system is very important to us. It’s very important to this university. It’s longstanding, has a very positive history. It’s done a lot of good things for individuals and for the community, so all this talk about a fraternity- and sorority-free Penn State is really not [a] conversation that I’ve been engaged in, and I’d rather others not engage in it.”

Undergraduate fraternity membership reached at least 385,000 students in the U.S. and Canada during the 2015–16 academic year, according to the North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC), which represents 66 fraternities and is the U.S.’s largest fraternity umbrella group. The group saw a 50% increase in membership during the past decade.

“It’s not just some kids who want to throw parties, and that’s the art of what’s so appealing to young men about fraternities,” says Lisa Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Occidental College. “It is about power. And they have been very successful at consolidating power all across the country.”

How fraternities became a campus institution

The earliest fraternities were founded in the 1800s by young men rebelling against the disciplined schedules and religious strictures of their schools. Modeled after literary societies, the first fraternities hosted debates and required members to write essays, while also providing a social venue to drink and smoke. College presidents largely opposed the exclusive new organizations, but fraternities soon became an inextricable part of campus life. By the mid-1900s, when more women were admitted to previously all-male colleges, Wade says, fraternities began controlling social life as well.

While fraternity membership declined in the middle of the 20th century around the Vietnam War, it spiked again in the 1980s, thanks in part to a law that set the national drinking age at 21, making it harder for underage students to get alcohol outside of the Greek scene. Students have since been drawn to the promise of lifelong friendships and the best parties on campus.

Some fraternities, though, have perpetuated behavior that ranges from risky to criminal. Binge drinking has long been an issue on campuses, but a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Rhode Island found that fraternity members are more likely to drink heavily and have problems with alcohol use than their non-fraternity peers. And 73% of fraternity or sorority members have experienced hazing, according to a 2008 national study by researchers at the University of Maine. Fraternity members have been forced to chug hard alcohol, endure sleep deprivation and complete physical challenges while blindfolded, according to police reports and court documents. Hazing bans are now ubiquitous, but some fear they’ve done little more than hide these rituals from public view. An unintended consequence is that students who know they are breaking university rules may be less likely to go to authorities when things get out of control.

Fraternity defenders argue that most chapters foster brotherhood, build leadership skills and promote philanthropy. Penn State fraternity members volunteered 65,000 hours and raised nearly $1.4 million for charity in 2016, according to the Penn State Interfraternity Council. Nationally, fraternity undergraduates volunteered 3.8 million hours and raised $20.3 million for philanthropy in the 2013–14 academic year, the most recent year with numbers available, according to the NIC.

Judson Horras, president and CEO of the NIC, says his fraternity gave him structure and a sense of belonging at Iowa State. “My growth and development—-short of my family and probably church—I relate back to my journey, both positive and negative, of being a fraternity man,” he says. “How much it means to me—it’s overwhelming, and it’s a brother-hood feeling that I really appreciate.”

Josh Szabo, president of the Beta Theta Pi chapter at the University of South Carolina, believes critics often exaggerate the dangers of fraternities by focusing on what he sees as a few bad apples. “I do not ever see a point where fraternities would do so much wrong that it would outweigh all the good that they do,” says Szabo. “That would be akin to saying that the government does so much wrong that we should no longer have a government.”

Inside the fight to stop hazing

The Piazzas’ New Jersey home is filled with photos of Tim—posing in his football uniform, swinging a baseball bat, dressing up for a school dance, laughing with his older brother. His mother Evelyn often picks up and hugs the things that belonged to him. “It makes me feel like he’s here,” she says. His father Jim finds it too painful and avoids his son’s bedroom altogether.

They describe Tim as hotheaded and funny, kindhearted and smart. He was an accomplished high school athlete, and when he arrived at college he got involved with the Penn State Dance Marathon, which raises money to fight childhood cancer.

Tim didn’t talk much with his parents about his plans to join a fraternity, and he never mentioned concerns about hazing. “He played the whole fraternity thing fairly low-key with us,” Jim says. “He just said he was interested in doing it, but he knew my view was that he didn’t need to pledge a fraternity.”

In the eight months since their son’s death, the Piazzas have become vocal opponents of dangerous Greek life. But they’re frustrated that their advocacy hasn’t prevented teenagers from dying. When Jim heard about Gruver’s death at LSU, “my stomach went up in my throat,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The Piazzas want Penn State to quickly implement policies enforcing strong consequences for fraternity misbehavior, and they want those who played a role in their son’s death to be held accountable. But so far they’ve been disappointed. Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller initially brought charges—ranging from furnishing alcohol to minors to involuntary manslaughter and -aggravated -assault—against 18 members of Beta Theta Pi, whose chapter has been permanently banned at Penn State. But a judge reduced the most severe charges and dropped charges entirely in some cases after defense attorneys argued at a hearing that Piazza’s death was a tragic accident. Now 14 members are set to stand trial in a few months for lesser charges that include hazing and reckless endangerment.

Parks Miller says she hopes the case pushes universities to change how they respond to problems at fraternities. “Clearly something is seriously broken, and clearly change needs to be made that’s significant,” she says. “No more lip service that, you know, ‘We’re going to take this seriously, we’re going to make changes, we’re going to look out for these students, we’re going to take hazing seriously.’ That has not happened.”

Penn State announced reforms after Tim’s death—including an end to the system of Greek self-governance and a zero-tolerance hazing policy that permanently bans any chapter in violation—but the Piazzas believe the measures lack strength and immediacy. They also want the university to take more innovative steps, including providing students with a way to anonymously report hazing in real time.

Fierberg, the lawyer and fraternity critic, who is not involved in the Piazza case, believes Penn State is seeking to defuse the situation without alienating influential and wealthy fraternity alumni. At least 14 members of the Penn State Board of Trustees—the body that approved the reforms—were members of fraternities or sororities in college, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“There is no way that an intelligent, well-meaning president of a university such as Penn State could have come up with these less-than-significant proposals without having an eye toward the power, wealth and influence that represents the Greek industry,” Fierberg says. “That influence and power has been used over decades to prevent meaningful reforms.”

Penn State officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an emailed statement university president Eric Barron called the reforms “aggressive measures” and said that “significant progress has been made” in promoting student safety.

Why lasting reform is so challenging

University leaders describe the challenge of reforming fraternity culture as a balancing act. Some schools have taken steps to limit alcohol at parties, push back recruitment schedules and mandate anti-hazing workshops, and national fraternity organizations have rolled out required trainings and safety programs. But tragedies have continued to occur with alarming regularity.

West Virginia University President Gordon Gee acknowledges that fraternities can be problematic. He temporarily suspended all Greek life at the school in 2014, when 18-year-old Nolan Burch died after an initiation event while pledging Kappa Sigma, according to police. But Gee recalls his own fraternity experience in Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of Utah as a “very constructive and positive opportunity” and says fraternities -deserve a place on campus.

“The question ultimately is maybe this: Should you ban fraternities and sororities, or should you come up with a model that allows them to flourish—but in a very constructive way?” Gee says. “I prefer the latter, because I think that is more healthy for both universities and for students.”

University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides thinks alumni, who regale younger generations with their college stories and often contribute financially to schools, need to be part of the effort to stop recurring misconduct. He received pushback from both alumni and current students after saying in 2016 that he would consider ending pledging following a student death, though he ultimately decided not to do so.

“I hope you don’t think it’s easy, even for me as president, to be receiving calls and visits from chapter alumni and, in some cases, donors and great friends of the university, who think we’ve taken too hard a stand,” Pastides says.

Even when those within the fraternity community advocate for reforms, they often face strong opposition. Dave Westol, a consultant who advises fraternities on topics like combating hazing, says he has drawn ire from those who think he’s “sharing too many secrets” about his experience decades ago in a Michigan State fraternity. When, as the national executive director of Theta Chi, Westol shortened the fraternity’s pledging period in an effort to stop hazing, he says, he began receiving an annual birthday card from an older alumnus who said his birth date would “live in infamy because you are the person who is destroying the fabric of our fraternity.”

University administrators and national fraternity leaders admit that reforms will work only if fraternity members follow them. Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Phi Epsilon both ended pledging in an effort to reduce hazing, but several chapters have since been investigated for hazing violations. The Beta Theta Pi house where Piazza pledged and the Phi Delta Theta house where Gruver pledged were both supposed to be alcohol-free.

In the rare instance when a chapter is banned for good, it can still re-emerge underground. In August, American University in Washington, D.C., expelled 18 students for their involvement in recent hazing incidents, violence and underage drinking as part of an unauthorized fraternity. In September, at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., a white student allegedly affiliated with the Psi Upsilon fraternity—which lost its recognition in 2016 for repeated conduct violations—was accused of assaulting a black student and using racial slurs, according to police. The fraternity says no official member was involved.

In the face of these challenges, critics say the reforms many universities have adopted are too incremental to ensure the safety of the hundreds of thousands of students who participate in Greek life. Without major changes in how fraternities operate, they say, it’s only a matter of time before another student dies at another university.

Even after Penn State implemented stricter alcohol policies following -Piazza’s death, an 18-year-old student was found unconscious and hospitalized in September after allegedly drinking at Delta Tau Delta. The fraternity, which under the university’s new rules was prohibited from serving alcohol at social events until November, has been suspended while the case is investigated.

Such incidents are troubling to those who are still mourning Piazza. Brooks, his former roommate, worries about what will happen as more time passes and the urgency behind hazing reform fades.

“Around the country, people are going to see that there’s literal video evidence of hazing happening and still no one got in any real trouble,” Brooks says. “In a few years, people are just going to revert back to the way it was before.”

Pledge Settles Hazing Lawsuit Against Phi Delta Theta Fraternity

The hazing lawsuit was brought against the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and several brothers of the former University of Chicago chapter. 

The Fierberg National Law Group – on behalf of a former UChicago Phi Delta Theta pledge – settled the hazing lawsuit brought against Phi Delta Theta Fraternity and members of its now suspended University of Chicago chapter on September 11th.

As told by The Chicago Maroon

A hazing lawsuit brought against the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and several brothers of the former UChicago chapter was settled, a September 11 court document shows.

Dylan Kanaan, who was a spring 2015 Phi Delt pledge, alleged in a June 2016 complaint that he was hazed on the night of his initiation ceremony. According to Kanaan’s complaint, the defendants in the case forced him to binge drink alcohol and physically assaulted him in the chapter house.

Kanaan said the injuries he sustained on the night of the incident included a concussion, a fractured cheekbone, and a large cut under his eye. His complaint sought $250,000 in damages.

None of the parties in the case wanted to comment on the settlement. The agreement includes a confidentiality clause, according to a representative of one party in the case.

“Regarding this matter, because it was a confidential settlement, I and all parties are not able to answer questions or comment,” wrote executive vice president and CEO of Phi Delt Robert Biggs in an e-mail. William Eveland, Phi Delt’s attorney in the case, said he had no comment.

Jason Kleinman, an attorney for defendant Dakota Ford, said upon introduction, “I’ll spare you the trouble, and you can quote me on this, I don’t have any comment.”

Attorneys for the other named defendants in the case, former chapter president Nicholas Luthi and former rush chair Mihir Dubey, did not return voice mails, e-mails, or messages left with their assistants.

phi delta theta fraternity, phi delta theta, phi delt, hazing lawsuit, fraternity hazing, university of chicago, maxwell gruver, gruver, max gruver death
Phi Delta Theta Fraternity House at UChicago. Zoe Kaiser / The Chicago Maroon

In January 2016, before Kanaan filed his lawsuit, the fraternity announced that the UChicago chapter would undergo “recolonization,” a process under which the fraternity said the chapter would be dormant until all students who were members have graduated from the University. A letter obtained by The Maroon informing fraternity alumni of the decision cited “risk management policy violations” as the reason for recolonization. It was not clear until October 2016, however, when The Maroon published a report on the hazing incident, that the decision to recolonize came after a Phi Delt investigation into the incident at issue in the lawsuit.

Last fall, former Phi Delt brother Ford decided to share the chapter’s side of the story with The Maroon. Ford shared documents and photos related to the case. In one of the documents he provided, a brother admitted that chapter’s actions were “blatantly irresponsible.” Ford acknowledged he believed that Kanaan had a case against the fraternity: “This kid definitely has a case…. He deserves something, it’s obvious. He has a personal injury case.” But the account Ford presented disputed Kanaan’s core allegations—that he was singled out, trapped in Ford’s basement room, and assaulted—and instead alleged that Kanaan sustained his injuries when he slipped on a patch of ice while drunkenly trying to run out of the fraternity house.

Ford did not dispute that pledges were made to drink significant amounts of Everclear and beer before the incident.

A court filing with Dubey’s response to the complaint denies many of Kanaan’s allegations but accepts some details from Kanaan’s account.

Dubey acknowledged that pledges and members consumed a “green liquid” and beer on the night of the incident. He admitted that Kanaan was in the basement of the house and Ford’s room for a portion of the night, and he admitted that Kanaan tried to leave that room and run outside the chapter house.

Dubey denied or said he lacked the knowledge to respond to Kanaan’s main allegations, and he alleged that when Kanaan attempted to leave “fraternity members attempted to assist Plaintiff who was acting erratically.”

Dubey also said that Phi Delt knew or “had reason to know of the conduct of its fraternity members” and that it “provided substantial assistance to [the chapter] with respect to the pinning ceremony at issue.”

Phi Delt’s main argument in the case, according to a motion it filed to dismiss the complaint, was that “a national fraternity like [Phi Delta Theta] is not liable as a matter of law for the alleged actions of a local college fraternity chapter and its student members.” Phi Delt supported this claim by stating that it “did not control or direct the daily activities of the chapter and its student members” and that it does not permit hazing in its policies.

Dubey and Ford alleged in court filings that Kanaan knowingly and willingly acted irresponsibly, putting himself at risk. Kanaan rejected this claim in response. Luthi, through his attorney, raised technical issues with the complaint, such as instances where he alleged that it includes too much or too little detail, claiming that this prevented him from being able to respond.

Kanaan’s attorneys, Jonathon Fazzola and Douglas Fierberg, did not respond to Maroon inquiries about the settlement. Fierberg, however, is quoted in a September 15 NBC News story about the death of a Louisiana State University Phi Delt pledge. The story refers to Fierberg as “a prominent anti-hazing attorney who just settled a lawsuit against Phi Delta Theta on behalf of a University of Chicago pledge who was assaulted.”

Fierberg appears to criticize a Phi Delt policy implemented in 2000 that designates the fraternity as alcohol-free: “Whatever policy they have relies on the implementation by 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who are untrained and ill-equipped to manage the fraternities…. You can have a policy that says no terrorists go through the turnstiles at the airport, but if you staff the turnstiles with 18-, 19- and 20-year-old drunk kids, your policies will never rise above that level.”