Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- Two students at colleges in Virginia and Michigan have died since December after leaving Sigma Alpha Epsilon parties, renewing questions about safety at one of the largest U.S. fraternities.
SAE’s national office last week suspended its chapter at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, for three years after an alleged drunk-driving accident that killed a student who was a passenger. The driver belonged to SAE.
Alma College in Michigan has put all fraternity recruiting on hold as it investigates SAE’s role in the death of a freshman last seen at a party in its chapter house. Not counting that case, 10 deaths since 2006 have been linked to hazing, alcohol or drugs at SAE events, more than at any other fraternity, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.
SAE officials are “in complete denial about what’s going on in their various chapters,” said Leslie Lanahan, founder of the Gordie Foundation, an alcohol-awareness group. “There’s a lack of leadership at the top.”
The deaths are isolated incidents, and fraternities are a positive experience for most students, SAE spokesman Brandon Weghorst said in an e-mail.
“Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s leadership will not tolerate activities that are not aligned with our core values,” the fraternity, based in Evanston, Illinois, said in a statement.
As membership in Greek societies has swelled, more than 60 people have died in fraternity-related events since 2005, according to Bloomberg’s data. Almost half were freshmen.
National fraternity leaders have fought efforts to curb hazing, drinking and other misbehavior. They have lobbied against a proposed federal anti-hazing law and opposed campus initiatives to ban fraternity recruiting of freshmen.
Colleges have disciplined more than 100 SAE chapters since 2007, according to a list published on the organization’s website as a result of a legal settlement. They have suspended or closed at least 15 SAE chapters in the past three years.
One chapter, at Maryland’s Salisbury University, was suspended in 2012 after a college disciplinary board found that its members confined recruits in a dark basement, ordered them to drink and forced them to stand in an ice-filled tub.
After Bloomberg News reported last month that the chapter was continuing to recruit members, the school opened an investigation. This week, Salisbury said it found that the chapter violated terms of its suspension. As a result, the university extended the chapter’s suspension through the summer of 2015 and its probation through the summer of 2017, Salisbury spokesman Richard Culver said.
Reflecting SAE’s casualty rate, student members pay among the highest fees for liability insurance of any fraternity. In an effort to improve student safety, SAE leaders urged student and alumni members last year to ban alcohol at their chapter houses. The initiative was rejected at last year’s convention after opponents said the houses were becoming safer, said Jonathan Witter, an SAE alumnus.
SAE’s violations represent a “low percentage” of its more than 240 chapters and almost 14,000 college members, the fraternity said.
“We do not condone underage drinking, and our chapters are given very specific guidelines for social events,” SAE said. “The discussion of alcohol-free housing will continue.”
Students and others have died at or after SAE-related events at schools including the University of Kansas in 2009, Cornell University in 2011 and the University of Idaho in 2013.
The death at Washington and Lee occurred early on Dec. 3 as 11 people were returning in an SUV to the school from an off-campus SAE party, according to police and the university. Kelsey Durkin, 21, a senior from New Canaan, Connecticut, was seated in the back when the car ran off the road about 10 miles from campus, slammed into a tree stump and overturned, police said. Durkin, who police said wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, was hurled from the car and killed.
The driver, Nicholas Hansel, an SAE member, faces up to 20 years in prison after being charged with alcohol-related involuntary manslaughter, said Rockbridge County Commonwealth Attorney Robert Joyce. Calls to Hansel’s defense attorney weren’t returned.
The university, one of the nation’s most selective liberal arts institutions, is investigating the incident, spokesman Jeff Hanna said in an e-mail. Buddy Atkins, faculty adviser to the SAE chapter, which had 57 members prior to its suspension, declined to comment.
Durkin played hockey in high school and was part of two state championship teams. “She was great academically, she was a great athlete,” said Rich Bulan, her coach. “She was the kind of kid the younger players just gravitated towards.”
Less is known about the death of Sean Murawske, an Alma College freshman. On Jan. 12, Murawske, wearing a polo shirt and no coat, left an on-campus SAE party after campus security closed the event, Police Lieutenant Matt Schooley said. Classmates said he had been drinking there, said Phillip Moore, the City of Alma’s manager. Two days later, a search party found Murawske, 18, dead in a field, about a mile from campus.
Murawske, shy and thoughtful, was an altar boy who played baseball in high school, said David Mausolf, a cousin and principal of Our Lady of the Lake Huron Catholic School in his hometown of Harbor Beach, Michigan. Murawske was thinking of becoming a teacher, Mausolf said.
“He was nicer than anyone could have asked for,” Mausolf said. “He was kind, he was thoughtful, and he had a really good sense of humor.”
Murawske’s death shocked Harbor Beach, a city of 1,700 on Lake Huron’s eastern shore. The city set up a fund to help the family, and local schools canceled classes the day after Murawske’s body was found.
“All of the kids are taking it pretty hard,” said Gary Booms, Harbor Beach’s mayor, whose daughter went to the prom with Murawske. “There were people crying in the hallways.”
Alma College, a private liberal arts institution of 1,400 students, postponed recruitment by all of its fraternity chapters indefinitely and hired an investigator, spokesman Mike Silverthorn said. Police said the toxicology report won’t be completed for several weeks.
SAE said it “cannot confirm” that Murawske was at its chapter house. “We, as well as our local collegiate members, offer our deeper sympathies and prayers to his family,” SAE said.
Four years ago, Alma College disciplined its SAE chapter for violating alcohol and hazing rules, removing the chapter from university-owned housing for the 2010-2011 academic year, Silverthorn said. SAE declined to comment on the infraction.
SAE relies on both salaried staffers and volunteer alumni to advise its chapters, spokesman Weghorst said. The fraternity requires health-and-safety training for its members and is holding a training event this weekend for chapter presidents, he said.
Lanahan, the alcohol-awareness advocate, urged parents to “do some homework” into a fraternity’s background “when kids call” to say they’re joining a house. Her own son died in a hazing ritual while joining another fraternity at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2004. The deaths reflect a pattern of misbehavior at fraternities, she said.
“They say, ‘This is a one-off,’” she said. “It’s never a one-off.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Golden at firstname.lastname@example.org