Hank Nuwer, a writer and journalist, has written about hazing in the US since 1975 when he was studying at the University of Nevada, Reno.
That year, a rising star in the college football team, John Davies, was initiated into the athletic fraternity the Sundowners.
Nuwer said that he had already witnessed some of the group’s initiations first-hand at bars in town.
On one occasion, he said that he saw a new pledge “frothing at the mouth” following a hazing ritual that involved making prospective members drink Everclear before throwing lit matches in their faces.
One night, October 12, 1975, Davies and fellow pledges were driven out to an Indian reservation at Pyramid Lake, some 50 miles northeast of campus, far from anyone who could help.
Davies died and another student was left with brain damage from the hazing.
Nuwer wrote a piece for Human Behavior Magazine that year and was then assigned to create a database on the deaths.
He’s been covering the topic ever since and warns that incidents of deadly hazing have accelerated in the years since Davies’ death.
The first reported death at a fraternity was in 1874, and the first alcohol-related death was Hubert Spake at the University of Missouri in 1949.
The problem worsened following the passing of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which required states to prohibit the selling of alcohol to anyone under the age of 21, effectively excluding most college students from legally buying alcohol.
“When the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21, you can look on a chart and you start seeing the deaths coming,” Hank said.
“One, the alcohol being forbidden makes it more attractive. And two, it really became part of the hazing process.
“The litmus test is how much can you drink, fast, and in quantity? And so the causes of death in hazings are very different from the 19th century.”
Flavia Tomasello knows more than most about the potentially deadly consequences of hazing.
In October 2019, her 19-year-old son Antonio Tsialas died at Cornell University following a drunken hazing ritual.
Born and raised in Venezuela and Italy, Flavia didn’t know too much about hazing at US colleges.
She was wary when her soccer-loving son revealed that he was looking to join the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, but Antonio persuaded her that it would be a good way to develop contacts and leadership skills that would help him for life.
Antonio would disappear following a night of heavy drinking at the fraternity house, with his body being found at the bottom of a nearby ravine.
As well as having to come to terms with the devastating loss of her son, Flavia also had to deal with a code of silence surrounding the fraternity at Cornell.
“We did not receive any information from the school,” she told The U.S. Sun.
“It was whatever we were able to find out through our private investigators and the help of our attorney.
“They [Cornell] didn’t want to call it a hazing death, it was not recognized as anything at the beginning.”
In December 2020, Cornell paid an undisclosed amount of money to Antonio’s family and created an annual scholarship in his memory under a civil lawsuit.
It also indefinitely revoked recognition of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.