For some students, Greek life starts before they reach college.
Ninety years ago, 11 Jewish students at West Philadelphia High School founded what later would become an international organization that united Jewish high school boys from all over the Western hemisphere.
Sigma Alpha Rho, the high school fraternity they created, celebrated its 90th anniversary last month.
High school fraternities and sororities, which were once more prevalent nationwide, have gradually become rarer as national organizations crumbled under opposition from teachers, administrators and parents.
Six percent of high school students participate in fraternities or sororities, according to a study at Alfred University.
Matt Bagell, 26, was a member of a Sigma Alpha Rho chapter in New Jersey and is the current Supreme Exalted Ruler of the fraternity. He said the organization differs from other youth groups because of the level of independence the chapters exhibit.
“Chapters pretty much run events alone, unlike most youth groups, where parents arrange things,” Bagell said. Events include activities like attending sporting events or planning dances for students at nearby high schools.
Hank Nuwer, author of High School Hazing, said high school fraternities and sororities fell into decline after a series of highly publicized incidents in the early 1900s, in which pledges were injured or killed during pledging events involving alcohol and violent hazing rituals.
The Alfred study found that 76 percent of high school students in fraternities or sororities – the largest percentage of students in any type of organization – reported that they were hazed in some way in order to join. Comparatively, 73 percent of gang members reported that they had been hazed.
Bagell said SAR has diminished in scope in recent years, but said the decline does not involve a backlash against hazing or alcohol-related incidents.
He said the pledging process is overseen by alumni and focuses on teaching new members about the organization’s history and how to plan events.
Though Bagell did not deny that members often try to drink at fraternity events, he said alumni work to prevent underage students from sneaking alcohol into events and search bags during the mid-year and summer conventions.
SAR was created in 1917 because the founders were excluded from many extracurricular activities due to their Jewish heritage.
The fraternity, which used to have chapters across the nation, is now mostly contained to the Northeast.
An anniversary party took place in Philadelphia in May and attracted 400 to 500 alumni and current members from across the country.