(Updates with university penalty in 17th paragraph.)
By John Hechinger, David Glovin and Annie Linskey
Jan. 7 (Bloomberg) -- The head of the University of Maryland system and a state legislator called for tougher penalties on fraternity hazing following revelations of student abuse at an initiation ritual.
A local prosecutor said he is reviewing the incident at Salisbury University, which the school found involved forced drinking, immersion in ice, and basement confinement of recruits at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter. SAE’s national organization reopened its investigation into the case.
Fallout from the episode, first reported by Bloomberg News on Dec. 30, illustrates the growing concern about fraternity hazing and out-of-control drinking. As fraternity membership has soared nationwide, there have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. SAE has had nine deaths since 2006, more than any other Greek organization.
“The penalties need to be strengthened,” said William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system, which includes Salisbury. “It sends the signal that hazing is unacceptable, and that the state, the system and its institutions have zero tolerance.”
Maryland state Senator Jamie Raskin, a Democrat from Montgomery County, near Washington, said he plans to introduce legislation in the coming session to increase the fine for hazing, a misdemeanor, to $5,000 from $500.
“Nobody is being deterred in any way,” Raskin said. “It is not acceptable, and we should not wait around for someone to die of exposure or alcohol abuse before we crack down.”
Like Maryland, most states consider hazing a misdemeanor, said Cindy Tesch, a researcher at the University of Maine. Penalties range widely. Offenders in Oklahoma can be sentenced to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine while those in Michigan may receive a 15-year prison term and $10,000 fine if the offense results in death. Maine, Arizona and six other states require only that schools adopt an anti-hazing policy, and six states have no law against it, Tesch said.
Hazing offenders may also be prosecuted for assault and other crimes.
Raskin and Maryland state Senator Bill Ferguson, a Democrat from Baltimore, said they will seek to require that universities disclose the punishment and details of their findings when they discipline fraternities and other student organizations.
“In America, punishment is supposed to be a public thing so everybody gets the message,” Raskin said. “I don’t think we should have secret justice systems for fraternities.”
Disclosing disciplinary action and details about the infractions can deter poor behavior and send a strong message to fraternities and other organizations, said Mark Koepsell, executive director of the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors, a Fort Collins, Colorado, professional group representing administrators overseeing Greek Life.
“It allows [students] to take a good look in the mirror,” Koepsell said. “The entire community has an idea of the kind of things that may or may not be going on.”
In response to Bloomberg’s article, the University of Maryland system Board of Regents will review all its anti-hazing polices at a Jan. 14 meeting.
Chancellor Kirwan said the system would consider providing more disclosure of disciplinary infractions, as long as laws governing student privacy allow it.
Administrators at Maryland public universities have told Kirwan that, while national fraternity organizations have generally been cooperative in investigating hazing, “SAE seems to be an exception,” he said.
“They seem to be in denial or somehow looking the other way,” Kirwan said. “This is quite frankly very disturbing to me.”
The University of Maryland at College Park, suspended its SAE chapter from 2004 to 2008 for violating alcohol and hazing policies and for other misbehavior.
Universities have disciplined more than 100 SAE chapters since 2007, some repeatedly, according to a list published on the organization’s website as a result of a legal settlement. Colleges have suspended or closed at least 15 SAE chapters in the past three years.
SAE’s national headquarters, in Evanston, Illinois, has said the infractions on its website represent “a low percentage” of its more than 240 chapters and 14,000 college members and that it has “zero tolerance for hazing.”
SAE called Kirwan’s comments “completely untrue and inaccurate,” saying it had cooperated with University of Maryland officials “in every way.”
“In many cases, we act more harshly than university officials because we are driven by our strict values and concern for the health and safety of our members,” SAE spokesman Brandon Weghorst said in an e-mail.
SAE said it is reopening its investigation of the Salisbury chapter. The national group previously investigated and found no wrongdoing, Dwight “Duke” Marshall, the volunteer alumni adviser for the Salisbury chapter, has said.
Matthew Maciarello, the state’s attorney for Wicomico County, Maryland, which includes Salisbury, said he has encouraged the police to take another look at the Salisbury hazing episode, including interviewing witnesses and asking for records. Police closed a prior investigation without charges.
“I have no doubt there will be a second look at the case,” Maciarello said. “We are going to have a thorough and complete review.”
During an eight-week initiation in 2012, SAE brothers forced pledges to drink until they almost passed out, dressed them in women’s clothing and diapers and ordered them to stand in their underwear in trash cans filled waist-deep in ice, according to Justin Stuart, who was then a 19-year-old freshman pledge.
Fraternity members confined recruits for as long as nine hours in a dark basement without food, water or a bathroom, while blasting the same German rock song at ear-splitting volume, according to Stuart, another former pledge, and the findings of the university’s disciplinary board.
In November 2012, the university suspended SAE through the spring of 2014, prohibiting it from recruiting. Salisbury’s disciplinary board found that brothers “put the members of the pledge class in harm’s way both physically and emotionally,” according to documents obtained by Bloomberg under an open-records request.
In the Dec. 30 Bloomberg News article, Marshall, the chapter adviser, said members told him there was no hazing, and he believes them. Marshall said brothers are holding meetings at off-campus apartments and trying to recruit.
Salisbury Vice President of Student Affairs Dane Foust said he wants to meet with SAE to determine whether it has failed to comply with the recruiting ban and other sanctions.
Additional punishment “may be taken” if the chapter hasn’t complied with the penalty, Foust said. Marshall didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Peter Smithhisler, executive director of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, said in an e-mailed statement that the Indianapolis-based group is “addressing hazing and alcohol abuse with individual member fraternities and specifically with SAE.” The NIC sets “minimum standards for our members for which they are to hold their chapters accountable,” he said.
Inconsistent state laws on hazing demonstrate a need for a federal anti-hazing law with a uniform definition of the crime and tough penalties, said Brian Kowiak, whose son Harrison died in 2008 during a Theta Chi initiation ritual at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina.
“There has to be consistency across the board,” Kowiak said. “There can’t be one type of behavior that’s unacceptable in Florida and is acceptable in Nevada.”