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Chilling look at hazing at SUNY Binghamton: New York Times investigation

Sunni Solomon, the university’s assistant director of Greek life from 2010 until July, said in an e-mail, “My entire tenure from start to finish, I was scared to death that someone was going to die.”

 

Excerpt: One father cited text messages from his son, which could “only be interpreted as desperately reaching out for help.” He said they included descriptions of being forced to stand out in the cold in his underwear, prevented from sleeping for prolonged periods of time and not being allowed to leave the fraternity all weekend. “To be frank, I am shocked and mortified that this is allowed to go on at your institution,” he wrote.

One junior, who expressed great love for the university, relayed accounts from two pledges. One said her sorority threw pledges into a freezing shower where they had to recite the Greek alphabet. Another reported being forced to eat concoctions meant to make pledges vomit on one another and to hold hot coals from hookahs in their hands. The e-mail concluded: “Save the innocent and naïve who can’t seem to save themselves.”

Forced drinking, a staple of college hazing, comes up in a few reports. There also were reports of students’ getting frostbite from walking barefoot in the snow. One said pledges, blindfolded, driven miles from campus and relieved of their phones, were expected to find their own way home. Another said a fraternity branded pledges on the leg, back or buttocks.

Several reports claimed that some of the hazing continued even after organizations received warnings or after the university suspended pledging.

Officials at Binghamton — part of the State University of New York system — declined to say whether individual students had been disciplined but said 3 of the 53 sanctioned Greek organizations were currently banned from recruiting members. The university’s Web site says one sorority received a disciplinary warning, one fraternity was placed on probation and two fraternities remain under investigation.

Separately, two national sororities canceled charters of their Binghamton chapters in 2011 after a review of the sororities and the Greek culture on campus.

Part of the problem, university officials said, was that few victims were willing to come forward, so allegations were hard to verify. A number of the complaints, which were provided to The Times by someone alarmed at the severity of the hazing, came secondhand or thirdhand from worried girlfriends, alumni or parents.

Only 10 percent of Binghamton’s 14,700 students are members of social or professional fraternities and sororities, making Greek life a less dominant part of campus life than at some other schools. Mere numbers, though, do not tell the tale.

Housed, for the most part, in shabby, rambling houses and in apartments close to the bustling bar scene in Binghamton’s struggling downtown, Greek organizations are central to the campus’s social life. Most students go to parties there. With the distance from campus about three miles, the students are far from the eyes of administrators and the campus police. The problem is compounded by the presence of unsanctioned fraternities, some with rowdy reputations.

Although hazing is a crime in New York State, no one was charged in Binghamton. In April, the Binghamton police visited Alpha Pi Epsilon, also known as APES, an unsanctioned fraternity housed in a 9,600-square-foot Greek Revival mansion near downtown. There had been reports of nightly hazing involving “rigorous exercise, alcohol consumption, paddling and ‘waterboarding’ where the pledges were being hosed down,” a police report said. It added: “Information was also reported that some of the pledges had acquired pneumonia from the ‘waterboarding.’ ”

Sgt. Michael Senio said that without a sworn complaint from someone willing to come forward, the police could not enter the building where the occupants, according to the report, responded with “a lot of attitude and very little cooperation.”

Sergeant Senio said: “I can only speculate what was going on, but we could see the basement, which was like a disgusting-looking dark dungeon with hoses and standing water on the ground.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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