By Hank Nuwer
A fellow editor from the University of Nevada student newspaper banged on my flat’s door around 3 a.m. in October 1975. I was a grad student up studying.
“The Sundowners finally killed somebody,” said Bob, a member of Sigma Nu.
John Davies, a Wolfpack football player, perished after consuming booze—including 190-proof grain alcohol—as a Sundowner Club initiate. A second pledge was saved at a hospital.
The Sundowners weren’t alone performing deadly hazing rituals. UNR hazing then was conducted in public as it was at many clubs nationwide.
Sigma Nu was the gentlemanly fraternity with members serving in student government or on the school paper like Bob, but even that chapter experienced a pledging injury in the house. That former pledge, a good friend of mine, has a knot on his head as a souvenir of a house fall during pledging.
Hazing wasn’t under the microscope in ’75, and although at least one death a year due to the practice had occurred then (and now) since 1961…very few cases ended up with hazers in jail. Nor were campuses blamed for insufficiently regulating club behaviors and alcohol abuse.
A grand jury examined the facts in the Sundowner death and decided no one could be indicted despite this conclusion: “The Sundowners, collectively and individually, are morally responsible for John Davies’ death and the near death of [pledge] Gary Faultich.”
Flash forward to 2017. Dozens more hazing deaths have happened since ‘75—four this year alone. Two deaths—at Penn State and Louisiana State—were reviewed by grand juries. In the case of LSU’s Phi Delta Theta, grain alcohol like what contributed to Davies’s death was administered to Max Gruver prior to his demise.
This time no one is getting off easily. Outraged grand juries have recommended members be slapped with charges. The grand jury called the Penn State chapter’s drunken rituals “sadistic” and reaching “unfathomable peaks of depravity.” Security cameras showed members treating the comatose Tim as if he were “road kill” said father Jim Piazza.
Penn State officials have been castigated for failing to put the hammer down on its chapters.
“It was only a matter of time before a death would occur at a hazing event,” noted the grand jury.
Penn State, already reeling from the actions of a pedophile football coach, tried to put the best face on matters, saying its fraternity culture was no worse than elsewhere.
Be that as it may, it and other universities suddenly awoke to the fact that they were just one hazing party away from another tragedy. Consequently, social activities temporarily shut down at PSU, Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio State, Idaho, LSU…on and on.
No longer can school presidents afford to let the status quo continue.
“Universities need to step up and take further control and responsibility of the Greek systems,” Jim Piazza wrote me in an email. “Turning a blind eye and hoping that self-governance will provide the safety and security of their students is naïve and they must change their policies and procedures as it relates to Greek life. Universities are learning institutions and the students are there to learn. They have the ability to cut ties with anyone who fails to strictly follow their rules, policies and procedures.”
Of great importance is that legislators in many states are doing preliminary research in hopes of writing new laws against hazing or toughening existing laws. At least one Indiana legislator is now gathering facts to propose toughened Indiana hazing legislation.
“Legislation as it relates to hazing must also change and judicial systems must enforce it,” wrote Piazza. “There are inconsistent and in most cases insufficient laws surrounding hazing in the United States. These laws need to be stiffened and hazing should be a felony in certain situations. It was most desirable if these changes would be made at the federal level; however, across-the-board state-by-state changes can be equally as effective.”
Piazza prays that no other parent will endure the heartache of closing a son’s or daughter’s casket as he and wife Evelyn have done.
But old hazing habits die hard, and naïve pledges also die hard. In 2017, the parents of Nevada-Reno Sigma Nu pledge Ryan Abele filed a lawsuit against the disgraced, now closed chapter after Abele died in a 2016 fall carrying out pledging activities like rituals back in 1975.
Hazing has always been a crime. It’s about time USA grand juries treat a death like one.
FOOTNOTE: Hank Nuwer is a Franklin College journalism professor and the author of “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives.”