I met with Harrison’s mother Lianne Kowiak in New York City when we were both filming a TV episode for a Cable program later canceled w/o running. She strongly felt that the important role that Lenoir-Rhyne plays in the local community led to a decision not to charge the young men of Theta Chi involved in their long-standing tradition of big strong football players and other athletes tacking a small number of pledges charged with carrying “sacred stones” [rocks] from one end of the field to the other.
When Lianne Kowiak read about the fraternity ritual that killed a 19-year-old Baruch College freshman on an icy field in the Poconos, terrible memories of her own son’s death in 2008 came flooding back.
In both cases, young pledges succumbed to fatal head injuries after being pummeled by their fellow fraternity members as they ran a gantlet on a cold, dark night.
No criminal charges were filed in connection with Harrison Kowiak’s death during what some Theta Chi fraternity members referred to as a team-building activity.
What happened in a darkened pasture near the Lenoir-Rhyne University campus in Hickory, N.C., remained in dispute as the stories kept changing. The local prosecutors concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges.
A far different response is playing out in the case involving the Pi Delta Psi fraternity at Baruch, part of the City University of New York. (The university has since banned the fraternity from its campus.)
Acting on a grand jury’s recommendations, prosecutors in Pennsylvania this monthbegan bringing charges against 37 members of that fraternity for their alleged roles in the 2013 death of Chun Hsien (Michael) Deng. Third-degree murder charges have been recommended for five current and former members, as well as for the fraternity itself. The others face criminal charges including assault and hazing.
The men are being arraigned in waves so the local court isn’t overwhelmed. Ten of them have already been charged, with more arraignments continuing this week.
The case is widely viewed as one of the most sweeping criminal cases ever against a fraternity. It’s also being closely watched by those who have been pushing for tougher enforcement against hazing.
Relatively few hazing-related deaths and serious injuries result in criminal charges, and charging the fraternity itself, as was recommended in the Baruch case, is extremely rare, according to experts who track hazing cases.
But attitudes are starting to change, said Douglas E. Fierberg, a Washington-based lawyer who is representing Mr. Deng’s family.
“For serious cases and serious wrongdoing,” he said, “the concept of ‘boys will be boys’ is a remnant of the past.”
That’s a message that Mr. Kowiak’s mother has been spreading this week at schools and colleges as part of their anti-hazing-week activities.
There was nothing bonding about the night that her son spent dodging hits across a pitch-dark field in pursuit of a “sacred” fraternity rock, or the pain that Mr. Deng felt as he was repeatedly knocked to the frozen ground, she said.
“When I heard that charges were being filed in the Baruch case, frankly I was glad to hear that some sort of action was being taken,” said Ms. Kowiak. “I hope this will be a wake-up call that these traditions and cultures are not all fun and games,” that people die, and others’ lives are ruined. “Either way, it is sad for all parties involved.”
Blindfolded and Body-Slammed
The facts in the Baruch case have trickled out over two years as law-enforcement officials have tried to make sense out of changing and conflicting versions of events from dozens of students.
According to the account presented to the grand jury, Mr. Deng was blindfolded, weighted down with a heavy backpack, and told to cross a frozen yard while others body-slammed him during a ritual called the “glass ceiling.”
“This event was not intended to hurt anyone,” said Hugh H. Mo, a lawyer for one of the defendants charged with a lesser crime.
“The idea is that these students,” as Asian-Americans, Mr. Mo said, “will have a tough road ahead of them, and running the gantlet is a way to help them in their struggle to assimilate and become successful.”
Pi Delta Psi is one of more than a dozen Asian-American fraternities that are generally not part of national mainstream umbrella groups like the North American Interfraternity Conference. National leaders of Pi Delta Psi did not respond to emails requesting comment.
The ritual is part of a disturbing pattern of violent hazing among Asian-American fraternities, according to experts interviewed by The Chronicle.
Some are trying to break out of the stereotype that Asian-American men aren’t physically strong or masculine enough and that they spend all of their time studying, according to Mitchell J. Chang, a professor of education and of Asian-American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-author of the article “To Be Mice or Men: Gender Identity and the Development of Masculinity Through Participation in Asian American Interest Fraternities.”
“These social groups respond in a very naïve way,” he said, “the way young men and adolescents would, with extreme hazing, thinking this would give the young men more willpower and strength to overcome those stereotypes.”
In Mr. Deng’s case, the results were tragic. After he lost consciousness, fraternity members told authorities they brought Mr. Deng inside, laid him down by the fire, and changed his clothes. Instead of calling for an ambulance, they looked up his symptoms on the Internet and called the fraternity’s national president, who told them to hide fraternity materials like notebooks and paddles that were in the house, according to police.
They eventually drove him to the hospital, but more than two hours had passed by the time he was treated, police said.
Digital Fingerprints, a Suspected Cover-Up
Several facts set this case apart from the vast majority of others where authorities have opted not to file charges, according to Mr. Fierberg. Police swooped in quickly to gather cell phones and track messages and Internet searches that implicated the students in Mr. Deng’s death, said Mr. Fierberg, who has represented families in a number of high-profile hazing cases. The extent of Mr. Deng’s injuries and attempts to cover up the incident also worked in prosecutors’ favor.
Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College and the author of several books and articles about hazing, said that while it may be too late to bring charges in the Kowiak case, the general public should “speak out and demand a thorough investigation the next time a fatal pummeling masquerades as team building and allows participants to walk arrest-free.”
But while many, like Mr. Nuwer, have applauded the arrests in Michael Deng’s case, others have accused the prosecution of overreach.
“My biggest problem with the way this investigation was handled was its broad sweep.” said Mr. Mo, the lawyer representing one of the Baruch defendants.
“Whether you were inside or outside, whether you slept through the weekend, everyone was charged. I don’t think that’s going to hold up in a court of law.”
He likened the arrests of dozens of Baruch students that night to arresting an entire team of football players if one of them took off his helmet and clobbered an opponent.
“Even assuming the player who got whacked died from his injury, no one in his right mind would say all of the players from the team should be prosecuted, even though they were all engaged in the same activity,” Mr. Mo said.
If there was a turning point in the prosecution of hazing, it might be the cases filed against 15 former members of Florida A&M University’s marching band after the death of Robert Champion, a drum major who succumbed after being pummeled with fists and instruments during a brutal hazing ritual aboard the band’s parked bus. At least three wereconvicted of manslaughter.
The case was a test of Florida’s anti-hazing law and sent a message to prosecutors elsewhere that hazing abuses could be criminally prosecuted. Forty-four states now have anti-hazing laws, and Florida’s is one of the toughest.
“I think what happened at Florida A&M has influenced prosecutors to think they can successfully prosecute certain hazing events they might have been wary about pursuing before,” said Peter F. Lake, director of Stetson University College of Law’s Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy.
Still, most cases end up resulting in lawsuits or are settled out of court.
When it comes to filing criminal charges, “It appears that the line has been drawn at beating someone to death, which is sad,” said Gentry R. McCreary, chief executive officer of Dyad Strategies, a research and assessment firm that helps fraternities and sororities develop anti-hazing policies.
One reason, he said, is that fraternity members tend to circle the wagons when tragedy strikes.
“The veil of secrecy that happens in these cases makes it difficult to gather information,” Mr. McCreary said.
That’s exactly what investigators said stymied them in trying to unravel the mystery of Tucker Hipps’s death one year ago this month during a morning run with other Sigma Phi Epsilon pledges at Clemson University.
He died after falling head-first off a bridge, and no one has come forward to explain how that happened. The local police contend that many of the dozens of people they’ve interviewed are lying or withholding information.
Prosecutors say the same about many of the students implicated in Mr. Deng’s death, and they’re hoping the criminal charges will make the fraternity members come clean. No one can argue that the freshman pledge was participating in the ritual willingly, the family’s lawyer said.
“The evidence exists that he was fighting back,” Mr. Fierberg said, “and because he was fighting back, he was getting it worse.”
Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her firstname.lastname@example.org.