Hazing News

Excellent investigation of Illini Greek life

Frats nationwide under microscope, including at UI

Two years ago, University of Illinois officials were called to investigate a fraternity hazing practice straight out of Guantanamo Bay: For being late to a sleepover at the Delta Sigma Phi house, two new members were allegedly waterboarded.

In 2014, the UI’s Office of Student Conflict Resolution received reports that another campus frat, in an effort to “boost morale,” hosted “stripper night” — which involved bringing in adult entertainers from Chicago to put on a show with sex toys for new members.

Those were among the most serious of the 28 complaints levied in the past five years against the UI campus’ 42 sanctioned men’s houses that led to disciplinary action by the university, according to documents obtained by The News-Gazette via Freedom of Information Act requests.

While complaints are handled by the OSCR, which falls under the dean of students, the fraternities are governed by the Interfraternity Council, a student-led organization. Ultimately, judicial boards made up largely of UI students determine disciplinary actions for houses — the IFC itself is run by a nine-seat executive board of students.

The IFC’s website touts its standing as “The Largest Greek Life Community in the WORLD” and all the good its 3,700 members do, from its GPA (better than the average for 14 straight years) to its mission statement (“the development of fraternity members through intellectual, social leadership, and humanitarian pursuits,” it reads in part).

But there’s a darker side, too, one that in recent years has led to charges of hazing, drug use, homophobia and harsh initiation tactics — some of the same issues that prompted one of Illinois’ Big Ten peers, Ohio State, to suspend all male fraternities in November.

Nine months earlier, another Big Ten campus, Penn State, was rocked by the death of Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza. Security camera footage showed he had been served “at least 18 drinks in over 1 hour and 22 minutes,” Centre (Pa.) County authorities said in announcing charges against 26 fraternity members, for crimes that ranged from providing alcohol to minors to involuntary manslaughter.

That case, and others like it across the country — at Florida State, LSU and Texas State in 2017; at 14 other colleges, including Northern Illinois, earlier this decade — has sparked calls for rethinking the idea of Greek life on campus. Franklin (Ind.) College Professor Hank Nuwer, a leading expert on hazing prevention, wonders when enough will be enough.

“There are some (fraternities) that definitely need to be axed,” said Nuwer, author of 2018’s “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives,” one of five books he’s written on the topic.

“And as the deaths continue, there are demands for changes. Should fraternities exist at all? These are the things that we’re seeing right now.”


‘Tattletale’ problem

The allegations come as no surprise to Raneem Shamseldin, president of the student body at the UI. Having experienced Greek life herself — she rushed Delta Zeta as a freshman — she said she’s become somewhat desensitized to tales of hazing and the like.

“It’s so normal to hear these kinds of stories,” she said. “People would rather deal with the hazing because it’s temporary, rather than tattletale and lose out on the ‘lifelong friendships.'”

Shamseldin left Delta Zeta because of what she described as “racial tensions.”

Since then, sorority members took part in workshops that helped mitigate some of those issues but, generally speaking, Greek life at the UI lacks diversity, she said.

She likened Greek life’s traditionalist fixations to those of Chief Illiniwek supporters on campus. Tradition, she said, shouldn’t be an excuse for doing anything. And she blames the national fraternity and sorority organizations for fostering that sense of tradition.

“Nationals are usually older, elitist people who were really into their fraternity,” Shamseldin said. “So changing it from the top down is difficult. And on top of that, people aren’t speaking up about stuff like this.”


Punishment process

In a corner of Champaign police Sgt. Joe Ketchem’s office are three boxes — filled to the brim with fake IDs he’s collected over the years.

During his time as a street cop, Ketchem said he remembers seeing similar boxes inside fraternity houses — available to underage members who might need a hand convincing a bouncer or liquor store clerk they were of age.

Ketchem, who serves on CPD’s alcohol enforcement detail, said there’s a longstanding culture on campus of trying to outwit the cops, particularly when it comes to alcohol.

Often, it’s the police who end up tipping off the university about allegations of hazing. They eventually make their way across the desk of Justin Brown, director of the Office for Student Conflict Resolution, which is responsible for administering student discipline on campus.

Many times, the tips originate via something in the fine print of a police report or an anonymous Crime Stoppers message, Brown said. They tend to be light on details. If names are included, Brown said, he and his team jump to action and conduct as many interviews as they can.

When they uncover any evidence of a code violation, they recommend a formal hearing by the Board of Fraternity Affairs, which is made up of six students, three faculty/staff, three alumni and two ex officio members — the dean of students and assistant dean of students for Greek affairs.

Less serious cases are referred to the other main disciplinary bodies to handle fraternity discipline — the Interfraternity Council judicial board.

Serious ones — like extreme hazing practices — can lead the Board of Fraternity Affairs to issue any of five disciplinary actions against a house: an official university reprimand, a university censure, conduct probation, suspension or revocation. These often come with other sanctions meant to reform the organization before their status is reinstated.

“Hazing is an issue for organizations across campus, and as an IFC community, we are committed to addressing it in all forms,” IFC President Ryan Kane said. “The university, IFC and all fraternities have strong anti-hazing policies, and we work with the university and national fraternities to quickly respond to any allegation of hazing.”


‘Shocked’ and ‘outraged’

Of the 28 complaints brought against UI fraternities in the past five years, only one was a torture practice condemned by the Geneva Convention.

In late October 2016, the OSCR began investigating allegations that two new members of the UI’s Delta Sigma Phi chapter were subjected to “waterboarding for being late to an event,” according to a letter sent to the fraternity and obtained by The News-Gazette.

The OSCR contacted both victims, but only one responded. He said new members were instructed to attend a sleepover event at 11 p.m. Oct. 22.

Due to “communication issues,” he and the other alleged victim didn’t make it to where they were supposed to be until between midnight or 1 a.m., according to a transcript of an interview with the OSCR’s Brown.

When Brown asked what happened next, the victim said he didn’t want to answer.

After Brown described how waterboarding works — a person experiences the sensation of drowning — the student said that happened to him for about three seconds. When he removed the cloth from his face, the student said, he didn’t recognize who’d poured the water.

Among the eight others interviewed by Brown, one new member described being “shocked and a little scared” that anyone would do that. An active member of the fraternity, who said he didn’t know what happened until later, thought it was a joke at the time, adding: “If we were going to go overboard and (do) something dumb, I didn’t think it would be that dumb.”

Other active members described it differently. One said he didn’t agree it was actual “waterboarding,” but admitted what went on qualified as hazing. Another said the victims were asked if they were OK, the sleepover continued and house leaders were “outraged” when they learned what happened.

The OSCR’s investigation also found that “pledge points” were accumulated by making new members “clean the chapter house,” “give rides to active members” and “purchase food for active members.”

In addition to chapter leadership taking disciplinary action against “new member educators,” the university issued Delta Sigma Phi what’s called a revocation held in abeyance. In a letter to the chapter, the university wrote: “This means that although revocation would be an appropriate sanction, your organization’s relationship with the (UI) will not be terminated at this time.”

Conditional to full reinstatement when the one-year penalty expired on Dec. 8, 2017, the chapter was required to create a new member bill of rights and hold accountability and standards training, among other things.

When contacted by The News-Gazette, chapter President Szymon Kaminski declined comment.


Stealing and ‘stewing’

An OSCR investigation into the Delta Chi fraternity found the chapter was involved in “inappropriate new member education practices.”

Among them: calisthenics; sleep deprivation; confining members to a room where loud music was playing on repeat for extended periods of time; shouting profanity, racial slurs and homophobic slurs at new members; forced alcohol consumption; forced theft in the context of a scavenger hunt; and “stewing,” a practice in which members filled a bucket with disgusting liquids, including bodily waste, and threw it at new members.

One student interviewed by the OSCR in 2014 reported that he was hazed during his first semester and that the practice continued at Delta Chi throughout his time as a member.

In order to become an associate member during Delta Chi’s initiation week, the student said, he and fellow pledges were made to stand in a bathroom for over two hours with pillowcases on their heads.

Also, he alleged, he wasn’t allowed to sleep for more than an hour each night during pledge week and ate “canned chili and/or canned tuna along with a piece of bread during meals” and drank “from a pot of water that was passed around.”

Each day also involved pledges performing many push-ups. If one did poorly, the entire group was punished with additional push-ups. The sessions became more rigorous over time, he said.

At the end of the five-day initiation week, the student and fellow pledges were kept in a room for eight to 12 hours at a time, with the same song playing very loudly on repeat.

Once they were let out, students were marched into a room containing lit candles where active members said “absurd, silly things” to the pledges. Then it was back to the room for 10 more hours of a different loud song playing, the student said.

The student also described “stripper night,” which involved paid Chicago adult entertainers performing at the house.

Another student, who met with Ashley Dye, dean of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, said he also experienced hazing as a new member. He described scavenger hunts in which new members were expected to shoplift and collect dead animals. (Dye did not respond to multiple interview requests by The News-Gazette).

The second student said the push-up sessions, which lasted “even to the point that some new members became sick from exhaustion,” included active members blowing smoke at them, throwing beer cans at them, slapping them and holding their faces down.

Active members would also shout profanities, including racial and homophobic slurs, at new members.

The lengthy list of violations led the chapter to receive six sanctions and a revocation in abeyance for more than two years, from Aug. 27, 2014, to Sept. 15, 2016. To be reinstated by the university, the stipulations included hiring a house director and not hosting any event with alcohol for a full school year.

Delta Chi’s probation is due to end on Sept. 15, 2018.


‘The Candy Shop’

Alcohol violations were the primary reason for disciplinary action against the UI’s 42 IFC fraternities. Between April 9, 2013, and Nov. 28, 2017, half of them were hit at least once.

The most recent came on Oct. 20, 2017, when Psi Upsilon hosted an unregistered social event with alcohol present, which led to a university censure.

At that event, a minor became intoxicated to the point of incapacitation. Records suggest that some chapter members discouraged a 911 call. Eventually, someone placed a call, over the protest of others.

Multiple fraternities also were cited for violations related to drugs. The highest-profile case involved Lambda Chi Alpha, where a 2013 bust led to a membership purge and multiple criminal charges.

“The Candy Shop,” as that member-run part of the fraternity was known, was a prime location to buy Ecstasy, cocaine, Adderall, cannabis and LSD. Seven of its members were criminally charged. One member’s case was dismissed; five others received community-based sentences for guilty pleas to various charges.

The seventh, Michael Genovese, was sentenced to two years’ probation after pleading guilty to possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance, a Class 1 felony. In exchange, other more serious charges alleging he had between 15 and 100 grams of Ecstasy and 15 to 200 doses of LSD were dismissed.

To achieve an outcome like that, police need to be heavily involved. Brown said investigations his office conducts are time-consuming and resource-draining.

“We’ve been able to manage and continue to manage but that’s the source of my dread, at least,” he said.

For many spot checks of fraternities, Brown said his office relies on the campus grapevine.

Ideally, officials say, the outcome goes like Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s did following alleged hazing in 2013 and 2014.

The university placed the fraternity on suspension held in abeyance from 2013 to early 2015, and the national Sigma Alpha Epsilon office fined the UI chapter $50 per student, enough to cover the $5,000 cost of a hazing workshop.

After an evaluation of its members, some were expelled by the fraternity, said current Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter President Daniel Arkus. The national office also insisted a live-in adviser be hired for the house, a step more frats are taking to preserve order.

“He keeps things under control,” Arkus said. “If we were to have a party that gets out of hand, he knows how to handle that, as do we.”

The house also no longer hosts registered events with booze, a mandate from the national fraternity in the wake of alcohol abuse at chapters across the country.

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. In April of 2024, the Alaska Press Club awarded him first place in the Best Columnist division and Best Humorist, second place.

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 current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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