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Letter to the Moderator from Mr. Rich Braham, Marquise Braham’s father

COLLEGE HAZING & SEXUAL ASSAULT: A PRIMER FOR PARENTS & STUDENTS

First, sorry I’m late. It’s been almost 3 years since I lost my beautiful 18 year-old son, Marquise Alexander, to the evils of fraternity hazing. Since that time, more children have lost their lives or suffered physical and psychological trauma due to this illegal and largely unsupervised ritual. As your children prepare to graduate high school and head off to college, or if they are already attending university, I wanted to share what we’ve learned so you might be able to better protect your own precious children so they can avoid suffering a similar fate. Separate, but not unrelated, countless girls have been subjected to college campus sexual assaults — often linked to fraternity parties and their easy access to drugs and heavy drinking.

This needs to stop! In 2013, my wife and I were thrilled parents. Our eldest child was headed off to college. He was an 18 year-old freshman at Penn State University’s Altoona campus, studying Bio-Medical engineering. Marquise was a happy-go-lucky kid, but very driven. He was covered in a glow that was a mix of nervousness and excitement as he headed off to university. Marquise’s strong grades from his Catholic high school earned him a partial academic scholarship at Penn State, which he was very proud of. I told him that while academics was the priority, he should also take the time to get to know the other students on campus, with their different backgrounds and cultures. He was enthusiastic and threw himself into as many activities on campus as he could. He was an exceptional kid in every way, but especially in how he displayed kindness and decency to others. Through his Catholic school upbringing,

Marquise lived his life in service to strangers and also as an example to the younger students. He volunteered his time to brighten the days of the elderly at a geriatric center and at a local hospital. In addition, Marquise prepared food for sick children at Ronald McDonald House. He also taught studies and athletics to younger kids at the Catholic elementary school his little sister and brother attended. He was a model child and student. I should mention here that Marquise had no history of mental or emotional illness. His pediatrician says quite the opposite, in fact. As you continue, you’ll see why I felt the need to emphasize that point. In addition to taking 18 credits, Marquise was floor leader at his dorm, was studying to be an Resident Aid (RA) and worked in Penn State’s Sky Cafe’.

That was quite a load, and Marquise and I spoke about the need to maybe cut back a bit. He said everything would be okay, and that he could manage it…but then he brought up pledging for the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity. Marquise’s mom and I weren’t in favor of that — not because we feared any harm would come to him from the frat — but because we thought it would be too much of a distraction and drain on his study time. We now know we should have been very afraid! Reaching Marquise soon became difficult after he pledged Phi Sigma Kappa. He often told us that he lost his phone, but always managed to find it.

We later learned that the frat leaders allegedly confiscated the pledge’s phones and forced them to engage in illegal and immoral activities. As part of their hazing, the teens were allegedly forced to consume enormous amounts of alcohol, throw up, then chug down even more alcohol. The pledges were also allegedly made to snort cocaine, do bong hits and smoke weed on a regular basis, then clean up their big brother’s rooms to get rid of any traces of the illegal substances. The pledges were also made to fight each other. One was reportedly beaten so badly, he was sent to the hospital. Documents revealed that some pledges were given a “challenge”: snort a line of cocaine or take a dildo up their rectum. These activities- and more- went on for several months.

Marquise’s mom and I were in the dark about what was going on, because fraternities are secret societies and some even have a “sentinel” whose job it is to enforce that code of silence with discipline. Marquise survived his initial pledging period, and was then asked to serve in leadership. He was elected to be the secretary of Phi Sigma Kappa, while still only 18 years-old. Marquise had expressed his misgivings over what was happening in the frat to his best friends from high school. He even shared with them the hazing rituals Phi Sigma Kappa used. His friends urged him to leave the frat, but Marquise didn’t seem to feel he could. He also held out hope that once he was in leadership, he could help improve things.

As we’ve since learned, several fraternities use intimidation and blackmail to keep their pledges in line. We are aware that Marquise was “disciplined” at least once, and also told some former teachers at his high school and middle school that he was “marked.” Sadly, things didn’t get better for Marquise once he became a fully-pledged frat brother and secretary. Now he had to bear witness to and participate in the physical and emotional torture of the new pledges that he had endured as a new pledge, himself. It was one thing to survive the inhumane hazing directly, but quite another to have to observe and participate as others apparently suffered in agony…begging…pleading for it to stop.

Watching as other kids were being tortured was contrary to everything Marquise had done and been taught in his life up until he joined Phi Sigma Kappa. Marquise increasingly suffered from a crisis of conscience. How could he have gone from this kind, caring person just a few months earlier, to being part of a group of “brothers” who participated in the alleged torture of young men his own age? When Marquise came home for Spring Break in March of 2014, he jumped from the roof of a Marriott Hotel on New York’s Long Island. His longtime pediatrician told us Marquise had “no suicidal tendencies.” In fact, it was quite the opposite.

The Marquise he’d seen just before going to college was excited and enjoying his life. Mental health experts we’ve spoken with since have told us jumping off the roof was clearly a punitive act. Marquise leaped from the hotel one day before he was supposed to return to Penn State. He was just one month shy of his 19th birthday. Much of what I’ve written here only came to light after Marquise’s death, and then, only because Marquise documented it on his iPhone. It’s truly his voice speaking from beyond the grave. On his death certificate, the cause listed is suicide, but what we believe killed Marquise were the illegal and immoral activities in the fraternity that he simply couldn’t live with or forgive himself for. I am so proud to have raised a son with a conscience, a love of God that would not allow him to excuse the evils being imposed on others in the name of brotherhood. But, of course,

I DO NOT APPROVE of the choice Marquise made, and wish with all my heart he’d had the ability to overcome the conditioning and abuse he’d endured. I wish he’d broken his oath of silence to the frat and told us what was happening. But Marquise simply couldn’t forgive himself. That is what is driving me to tell his story in the hope that by sharing it, the lives of your children, grandchildren and siblings might be spared. Here’s some of what we’ve learned since his passing that we hope will help you and your family:

The university is NOT your friend. Evidence supports the view that their primary interest is self-preservation and guarding, as best they can, the reputation of the college or university. When we dropped Marquise off, Penn State told us they would watch over him as if he was “their own child.” They strongly recommended that all freshmen live in the dorms on campus, as Marquise did, so they could “keep an eye on him.” But we now know they weren’t watching over him, at all. We learned after he died that Marquise hadn’t been living in his dorm for some time. He had been living at the Phi Sigma Kappa house off campus.

When he was in the dorm, some nights he was so drunk he couldn’t even make it inside his room. He was passed out in the hallway. We were never told of this, even though university officials were aware. The state of Pennsylvania has an anti-hazing law. Penn State University’s own student code of conduct forbids hazing. Evidence we’ve obtained shows Penn State employees knew that Marquise was routinely being subjected to torturous emotional and physical hazing, and were warned that intervention was needed because it was causing him severe psychological trauma. Yet, we allege, Penn State did nothing to help Marquise or inform his family of what they knew so that we could protect him. If we’d only known what Penn State knew about Marquise’s suffering–but did not share with us–we could have saved him. Penn State had all the information and resources available to them, which if applied, could have saved my son…but from what we’ve learned, they did not even try, or give us the chance to do so. Even though at 18, Marquise was too young to drink, he was still considered an adult, so unhealthy activities he was involved in were not shared with his parents.

After his death, what Penn State seemed most focused on was determining whether there was evidence of hazing on campus. They told us there wasn’t, but we have obtained proof that wasn’t true. In the wake of Marquise’s death, the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity was suspended for 6 years — quite a long time for what is often a 2 year school before students transfer to main campus. The fraternity was described to us as “trouble” and “bad news” by some officials we spoke with during the investigation into his death. You might ask why this fraternity–with its poor reputation –was not abolished, altogether? I spoke with the University president about that. She spoke of wanting to remove all Greek life from campus because of the many downsides, but there was also the alumni to think of.

They donated money to the school, and that was also a consideration. Another heartbreaking incident recently occurred at Penn State involving a fraternity, underage drinking and murky circumstances. The tragic combination has left the family of 19 year-old student and pledge, Timothy Piazza, mourning his death. Our heart goes out to his family.

Following his death, PennState and its Interfraternity Council announced they are suspending ALL social activities for fraternities and sororities, where alcohol is served. The fraternity involved, the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Penn State, has been suspended for at least 5 years. Local authorities say criminal charges are being considered due to the 12-hour delay before Piazza’s frat brothers called an ambulance. In Marquise’s case, an alleged lack of cooperation by his Phi Sigma Kappa brothers with campus police, contributed to the frats lengthy suspension. Campus police being the lead investigators is also something I raise a flag about. While an officer with Penn State’s campus police was incredibly kind and compassionate to us, campus law enforcement still work for the school. Whether it is a case of hazing or campus sexual assault, having the university investigate itself, rather than bringing in outside law enforcement, creates not just the appearance of, but a real conflict of interest.

It doesn’t help that — as Harvard’s Kennedy School, Shorenstein Center tells us– “Higher-education institutions generally do not monitor hazing incidents or allegations.  and that hazing is not on the list of student offenses that must be reported to the U.S. Department of Education.”

How can you prevent something if you’re not even tracking it? And that’s not just the case with hazing, a study of more than 300 universities commissioned by Missouri Senator, Claire McCaskill in 2014, found that more than 40 percent of colleges and universities in the U.S. hadn’t conducted even one sexual assault investigation on their campuses during the previous five years http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/9/campus-sexual-assaultsurvey.html. Another startling finding from that report, 73 percent reported that they have no formal procedure on how to coordinate with local police in handling sexual assault cases. Maybe that’s why the Department of Justice found that less than 5% of campus rape victims even report the crimes to authorities! Sadly, even when hazing and rape cases make a rare appearance in criminal court, it seems that prosecutors and judges can take a laissez faire attitude in regards to holding anyone accountable for these crimes. On the contrary, hazing and sexual assaults on campus are often viewed as childish errors in judgment.

Tell that to the parents who have lost a child or had one seriously injured due to hazing, or for the many parents who had their child become a victim of sexual assault on campus. Some of those in authority making these decisions are fraternity brothers, themselves. As one high-ranking PA state official, who attended Penn State Altoona and was overseeing the investigation into Marquise’s death told me, he was “A proud frat brother.” He did so without any concern revealing this to me might taint his investigation. At least he shared it. Most families will probably never know that information in their own cases. A casual attitude about law enforcement and deterrence has led to at least one hazing death a year, dating back to 1970. That doesn’t even take into account the vast numbers of hazing victims who suffer permanent physical and psychological harm.

One recent example is the case of Kellen Johansen, a 20 year-old student from Linfield College in Oregon, who is suing the college and his Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity after he says he lost an eye during a hazing ritual in April 2016 involving fireworks. The fraternity has strongly denied the allegations and Linfield College says they only became aware he was allegedly hurt during a hazing incident when the lawsuit was filed. http://www.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwestnews/index.ssf/2017/02/linfield_student_lost_eye_duri.html In the instance of campus rapes –even with a very low report rate– estimates are anywhere from 20 to 25% of female students will be sexually assaulted during their time in college. While few of these cases are ever prosecuted, even when they are and result in a conviction, the results can spark outrage. This was evidenced by the sentences handed out by judges presiding over the cases of sexual assault convicts, Stanford University swimmer, Brock Turner and Massachusetts high school athlete, David Becker, which have been criticized as being too lenient.

There has been some progress in officials beginning to crack down on hazing crimes. In the case of 18 year-old Michael Deng, a Baruch College student who died in 2013 during a suspected hazing ritual run by the Pi Delta Psi fraternity. In January of this year, brother Ka-Wing Yuen entered a guilty plea in connection with his death. 36 others have been charged in Deng’s hazing death- including 5 with murder.

More still needs to be done. Awareness is key. The fact that hazing incidents are not tracked by universities means that prospective students, pledges and their parents have no idea which campus frats have a history of engaging in dangerous and illegal activities. So, right now, they have no way of knowing which ones to avoid. But legal efforts are underway to change that — forcing universities, fraternities and sororities to publicly and fully disclose their history of violations for the benefit of their prospective and current students and pledges. Crimes and violations, including those resulting in death, sexual assaults and other serious physical and emotional injuries, would have to be posted clearly and prominently on their web sites and promotional materials, right alongside where their recruitment materials where they are promoting the “benefits” of Greek life on campus. Not all fraternities engage in this illicit behavior, but hazing and sexual assault are crimes. Currently, there is no mechanism to alert prospective students or their parents to the prior bad acts of Greek organizations when they’re choosing which college to attend. Hopefully, this legal action will change that. I know the love my family and I have for Marquise is no greater than the love you have for your own children or siblings. March 14th will mark 3 years since Marquise left this earth. The unbearable pain carried in the hearts of his 2 younger siblings, my wife and I, not to mention the rest of his family and friends, will be with us forever. As one of Marquise’s close friends from high school told us, “You either loved Marquise, or you never knew him.”

We agree, but that’s why his absence hurts us all so much. We don’t want anyone else to bear this burden, the endless grief with holidays and birthdays spent at the cemetery. Too many are already suffering. Again, we’re not anti-frat or anti-sorority. Single sex organizations can and do wonderful works. My daughter graduated with honors from an all-girls Catholic high school, whose students and alumni do amazing work. But hazing is a CRIME in most states. Sexual assault is a CRIME in all states. These criminal acts cannot and should not be taken lightly by fraternities, universities or law enforcement, or be excused away as just “kids play.” Hazing and sexual assaults are often linked to illegal drinking and drug use at frat parties, and the universities know it. Authorities need to stop being willfully blind and must aggressively investigate, prosecute and sentence these crimes to the same degree as the pain and harm inflicted on the victims and their families. If you have a loved one who will soon graduate high school or is already in college, please share this with them.

We couldn’t save Marquise, but by sharing our experience, it’s our hope we will be able to keep others from harm…possibly even your own child. Thank you.

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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