If ever a lawsuit was justified, it is the one filed by the family of Nolan M. Burch, killed by alcohol given him in routinely reckless fraternity hazing.
Burch, just 18, apparently guzzled a bottle of liquor, was laid on a table and later turned blue. Efforts to revive him failed. Two days later, the Amherst teen was pronounced dead. He was a student at West Virginia University and, like many young men, came under the sway of senior members of a fraternity he wanted to join, Kappa Sigma. They told him to drink, according to the family’s lawsuit, and he did.
It was foolish, no doubt, but foolish in the way to which 18-year-olds are especially prone. Voter laws and military regulations may presume 18-year-olds to be adults, but by the time those teenagers reach 30, they know better.
Nolan Burch won’t have that opportunity, because 11 months ago, some people took advantage of his immaturity. Others who know better did too little to ward off an obvious threat.
Those, at least, are the complaints of Burch’s family, and they are eminently plausible. The targets of their lawsuit include West Virginia University, Kappa Sigma fraternity and fraternity members. The overarching complaint is negligence.
Fraternity hazing has been, and remains, a toxic stain on American university life, and it spreads across cultures and regions. Some fraternities have been noted for brutal hazing rituals, including one that occurred in Syracuse where a pledge faced, but ultimately avoided, amputation of his frostbitten fingers. In Alabama, Jacksonville State University’s chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon had its charter revoked over hazing allegations.
It’s a pestilence. The tradition of vicious hazing tests accomplishes nothing useful. It feeds older students’ need to dominate – and to impose the same cruelties they endured – while taking easy advantage of the desperation of younger students who want to be accepted. Fitting in is more than merely important at that age, and the adults who administer the nation’s universities must know that. Too often, though, they do too little to account for it. And young men’s safety is put at risk. Some die.
The issue of responsibility has yet to be determined in this case, and other details may yet emerge. Regardless of the ultimate verdict, though, universities and fraternities across the country should see this lawsuit for what it is: not just a shot across the bow, but a cannon aimed at the ship.
Changing any institutional culture is a daunting task, but that’s the need, and it was recognized after Burch’s death by none other than West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee. “It is a culture that needs to be changed at nearly every institution of higher education across this country,” he wrote.