National Fraternity Controversies Pose Similarities to Past Dickinson Incident

Drew Kaplan ’20, Editor-In-Chief

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Fraternities have re-entered the national spotlight following several incidents of harm to students at various universities in the United States. These incidents occur while Dickinson College seeks to bolster its male Greek life, following the shutdown of two fraternities, Phi Delta Theta and Kappa Sigma, in fall 2017.

According to USA Today, four deaths have occurred this semester across the country as a result of fraternity related activities, and despite policies designed to target and prevent dangerous fraternity behavior, the trend of fraternity related deaths shows little sign of changing. One incident, which occurred at San Diego State University, involved the death of a student from head trauma following an event at the university’s chapter of Phi Gamma Delta on the night of Nov. 8, and a lawsuit has been brought against the Theta Chi chapter at the University of California Santa Cruz after a student drunkenly fell 18 feet from a window following pledging activities on Halloween night. A similar death occurred at the Chi Phi house at Pennsylvania State University on Oct. 9, and a first year from Cornell University was found dead in a gorge on Oct. 24 following a party held by an unregistered fraternity. All of these incidents involved the excessive consumption of alcohol, which is, according to USA Today, considered a rite of passage for those seeking to rush.

These alcohol related incidents come on the heels of other fraternity related controversies. Syracuse University recently suspended its chapter of Alpha Chi Rho following allegations of racist remarks made by fraternity members and their guests at an event. According to The Daily Orange, the student newspaper of Syracuse University, the university also suspended several fraternities in 2018, amongst them Sigma Alpha Mu, following investigations into hazing by the organizations, which the university deemed credible. The university’s chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon was sanctioned for hazing offenses the same semester. The university chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi was suspended for endangering the welfare of pledges in spring 2018, and Delta Tau Delta the prior semester for several offenses, hazing amongst them.

These incidents bear marked similarities to past incidents involving fraternities at Dickinson College. In fall 2017, Kappa Sigma disbanded following several allegations raised against the fraternity, which was then already under sanction by the college. In an interview in January 2018, three months after the fraternity disbanded, Sean Ryan, associate director of fraternity life and experiential leadership education explained that, in the spring 2017 semester, Kappa Sigma had been placed on probation for an alcohol violation and the discovery of a document produced by members of the chapter, which detailed “things that shouldn’t be repeated,” according to Ryan. A similar document to the one discovered in fall 2017 was found and turned over to the administration. This document had the phrase “KE party” at the top of the page according to Ryan. Kappa Sigma was placed on a one-year suspension for the second document, to be served for the 2017 – 2018 academic year. These two incidents led to the sanctioning of the chapter by the national organization. Three students close to fraternity members alleged in spring 2018 that the document detailed plans for a party to be hosted by Kappa Sigma at which female party guests would be served drinks laced with ‘date-rape drugs.’ Ryan did not confirm this allegation. However, he did confirm that the document contained references to several possible conduct violations, “everything from borderline Title IX offenses to alcohol to drugs to sexual harassment, and things like that.”

Ryan stated that he aided the fraternity in drafting their notice of appeal of charges stemming from the documents; “Looking at that sanction, talking with the gentlemen of KE [Kappa Sigma], I personally agreed with the organization, that I think the year suspension was a little ridiculous.” Ryan explained this sentiment was due to the second document lacking details of the personal involvement of individual fraternity members. “A lot of things that were just like, funny and stupid” were listed Ryan said. However, “it wasn’t like a process of here’s what going to happen when, who was going to do this. If the doc[ument] was more detailed, if it had names and had dates like that, I think that’d be a different story.” Ryan added that he believed there should have been some sort of sanction for the organization, “but not a year’s worth of suspension.” However, the same day that fraternity submitted its notice of appeal to the college, Ryan stated that two students alerted the college that they had been hazed while attempting to join the fraternity. Ryan said that neither person knew the other had come forward, “They came in on their own accords, they didn’t know that [the] other was coming in. They talked to two different people, and their stories were identical.”

Zach Liga, who transferred from Dickinson College at the end of the spring 2018 semester following his sophomore year, received a bid from Kappa Sigma and began the rush process before dropping out midway through. Liga alerted the college to the hazing. In February 2018, in an interview, he described the hazing he experienced as part of the pledging process.

“Rush is very deceitful to people who don’t know much about Greek life because they kind of butter it up. There’s no mention of what they call pledging. They don’t tell you you’re going to get hazed,” Liga said. Liga described the process in total as lasting five weeks, for which he was present for two. He described the process as beginning with “meeting all the guys” without any “drugs or alcohol involved.” However, as the process continued, for “three or four hours at least” every night, pledges were required to attend events at which there would be “drinking” and “blindfolds” in the basement of the fraternity house Liga described. “For this campus, it’s pretty extreme.” Liga described that, on the first night of pledging, he was “thrown into a basement. They just do whatever they want to you. They can say whatever they want and you just have to do it. You’re pretty powerless in that situation.” Liga described being required to do pushups and wall sits while intoxicated and blindfolded early on. “You’d be forced to drink. […] I was forced to drink, and some people had to eat random food, [such as] coffee grounds or random vegetables, like an onion.” Liga described that there was “copious amounts of drinking, and the key part of that is that we were thrown into that day one of pledging,” rather than it ramping up over the course of pledging, and that these sorts of activities were indicative of the Kappa Sigma culture, which placed emphasis on one’s ability to “hold your alcohol, pull b*tches, [and] get laid. […] They’re cultivating a culture of alcohol and sexism.” Pledges were also forced to give accounts of their sexual encounters to fraternity members, shamed for having nothing to report, and forced to have additional drinks if they could not remember the names or titles of individuals already in the fraternity. “The worst thing was the boiling beer,” an activity in which pledges would be required to drink beer from containers which had been immersed in boiling water, the result being “you immediately throw it up.” Liga added that pledges were required to vomit into their shirts throughout. “It was humiliating,” he said. Throughout, the “same song would be played for hours on end” as a form of psychological torment during the nightly drinking where pledges were required to get so drunk “they couldn’t see anything,” and that on one night, it was believed that the heart of one pledge stopped due to alcohol intoxication. “They thought he was dead.” Liga added that the pledge class was sworn to secrecy about these occurrences. “When you go through that, it changes you.”

Later in the pledging process, Liga described the pledging activities as lasting longer into the night, preventing pledges from sleeping and “the drinking became more severe.” At first, the sessions began and 9:00 p.m. and end around midnight, before coming to last as late at 3:00 a.m., with at least one night lasting until 7:00 a.m. Pledges would also be driven to off-campus locations and, without their cell phones, be required to navigate their way back to campus. All of these activities occurred at the Kappa Sigma house, to and from which pledges were required to wear an extra set of clothing over their pledging uniform to disguise themselves and what was occurring. During this, “the pledge master had a paddle [approximately the size of a tennis racquet], but no one ever got hurt. It was part of the whole intimidation thing.” The role of the pledge master was to “denigrate, degrade, and belittle” the pledges, “just to make you feel pretty much worthless.” 

“I talked to a lot of people, and they agreed with me that it was f*cked up, but the purpose of pledging is to break everyone down emotionally,” he said and explained that the goal of the pledging process was to encourage a sense of solidarity from “traumatic” treatment. “You feel like you have to do it to be a part of that group […] you don’t know what is coming at you.” Liga also described several members making disparaging remarks regarding women. 

Liga described that, after dropping out of the pledge process, he ended contact with those in the organization. However, after blowing the whistle on the organization in early Nov. of 2017, he faced retaliation from the brothers. “I never talked to any of them again, […] but once I reported them, I could tell a physical difference in how they were treating me.” Liga also described that students from outside of the fraternity also became aggressive towards him after this, and brothers would both contact him directly and post on social media about him. “It’s a sh*tshow and it’s a shame,” with this treatment prompting his decision to transfer out of Dickinson College. “I was blamed for shutting down this fraternity.”

“I don’t hate frats” he added, “In theory fraternities are good, but I think there was more problematic behavior embedded in the whole organization.”

In January 2018, Ryan explained that his understanding of the alleged hazing was that pledges were required to attending pledging sessions in the basement of the Kappa Sigma house while wearing specific pledge uniforms. While there, pledges were required to “listen to loud music, […] eat a lot of things […] that they probably shouldn’t have been eating,” consume alcohol, and “if they [the pledges] threw up, they had to eat their own vomit,” Ryan explained.

Ryan added that, due to their prior sanctions regarding the discovery the first document, Kappa Sigma was prohibited from engaging in a new member education process, “so the fact that they were doing this new member ed[ucation and] hazing also violated their national [fraternity office’s] policies and rules as well.”

The second student declined to be interviewed for this story. 

From these reports, the college brought hazing charges against the fraternity. That night, Ryan stated he received notice that the fraternity planned to disband, and that over the following days he received formal resignation letters from each of the members. Ryan explained that the chapter was not on good terms with their national organization following the discovery of the first document, as Ryan “had to share it with their nationals. The nationals were almost going to pull their charter probably because of that.” Ryan furthered that “They knew it wasn’t going to end well with their nationals, as well as for us, so they all just chose to quit to avoid the conduct issues and the charges that way.

Clarification: In a previous version of this article, it could be inferred that Sean Ryan had confirmed allegations of a plan by Kappa Sigma to use of ‘date-rape drugs’ at a party. At no time did Ryan confirm this allegation, and the article has been revised to reflect this. Moreover, additional detail has been added regarding Ryan’s reasoning to support the fraternity’s appeal, as well as Ryan’s understanding of the hazing allegation. This revision was published at 5:37 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. The Dickinsonian regrets this lack of clarity.