Are fraternities committed to raising men or raising hell?

Louisiana State University considers the alcohol-related death this month of a freshman from Roswell  “a potential hazing incident,” highlighting a grim reality of Greek Life: Frats can be fatal.

A new book that came out today examines the most deadly U.S. fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

In “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities,” journalist John Hechinger chronicles how SAE, alarmed to have more deaths related to alcohol and hazing than any other fraternity, sought to reform itself. Part of that reform led the national fraternity to cooperate with Hechinger to expose the good and the bad within the organization of 13,500 members and 215 chapters.

The journalist found both in his two years of research and campus visits, from chapters where women felt so threatened they said SAE stood for “Sexual Assault Expected” to the brothers at Ohio State University who embraced a gay adviser and his challenge to become a national role model of service, illustrative of the original SAE creed to be "True Gentlemen...who thinks of the rights and feelings of others...a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue is safe."

Calling SAE the nation’s most notorious fraternity, Hechinger reports from 2005 to 2013, 10 people died in incidents related to SAE. Sixty people in all died at fraternities during that period. Max Gruver, a graduate of  Blessed Trinity High School, died on Sept.  14 after an event at Phi Delta Theta, which has been shut down at LSU.

More than 130 SAE chapters were disciplined over the last five years, and 30 closed. In 2015, the University of Oklahoma disbanded SAE after a video emerged of two members on a fraternity bus singing, “There will never be a n***** at SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me.”

SAE’s liability costs became the highest of any frat because of its troubling record, and change was a necessity, said Hechinger.

“The leaders of SAE know they are a legal judgment away from oblivion,” he writes. In 2014, SAE banned pledging, which seems to be working; there have been no recent SAE pledging or hazing deaths and insurance claims fell from 13 a year to two, he reports. But there is resistance to changing fraternities, which remain largely white and deeply attached to their rituals, even the dangerous ones.

In a telephone interview, Hechinger said the alcohol-soaked cultures have to end for fraternities to endure. “Fraternities have to decide that they can be about more than drinking. And, as the book indicates, they often are. They can be incredibly valuable. But, if every year someone is going to die, they may not be able to survive.”

Frats must stop fostering conditions where underage 16-year-old girls can come to their parties and end up brutally raped in a dingy bathroom, as occurred in 2014 at a Halloween party at the SAE chapter at Johns Hopkins University, he said. Rapes were reported at two other SAE houses that same weekend, including Emory.

Often, fraternities argue the assaults are not committed by members — as was the case at Hopkins — or the young women are too drunk to recount what happened. “But it was their party. If their values are integrity and honor, they should be asking what they can do to create an environment where these assaults don’t happen,” said Hechinger.

Consider the conditions at many frat parties, he said. “You have freshmen women who have never had alcohol or that much alcohol before and they have all these men around them, and they’re in dark basements.”

He pointed out sororities have avoided this moral and legal minefield because most forbid alcohol in the chapters, saying, “That means they don’t have those parties. You don’t see any deaths or serious injuries.”

But what of all the parents who believe frats help their sons find lifelong friends and networks, especially at sprawling schools like the University of Georgia where tour guides often reference the helpfulness of Greek organizations in “shrinking the campus.”

In many public colleges, only 20 percent of students are Greek, but Hechinger said the Greek influence is vast. "What other group on a campus has 20 percent membership? They have a dominant influence on student government because they are a huge voting bloc. They have the spaces that are private where you can have alcohol and serve underage people," he said.

While Hechinger understands the social appeal, he cautioned, “Parents need to know there are real risks. It is important to understand there is more heavy drinking at fraternities. Parents should talk honestly with their sons about any kinds of risk they might take.”

The most highly regarded survey of campus drinking found 86 percent of men who lived in fraternities report binge drinking, nearly twice the rate of other male students.

Hechinger said parents now also face risks if someone dies or is hurt at a frat event where rules were broken, including underage drinking. Fraternity insurance policies in these instances leave parents vulnerable to personal lawsuits. “Plaintiff’s attorneys now go after family homeowner polices,” said Hechinger, who details lawsuits facing SAE and members in his book.

“If you have a son and he wants to join, I would say he should really look at the culture of the particular chapter and understand what it is all about,” he said. “I would also suggest not joining right away. Students ought to make broad groups of friends, so they don’t feel desperate that they have to join to have friends. I would also get a very large liability policy.”

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.