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New York Times: Powerful story on a death at Cornell

Powerful article on a hazing death at Cornell–the last paragraphs tore me up. Was honored to be interviewed for this story.
In his college application, George Desdunes wrote of the sacrifices his mother made “to help me achieve something with my life.”
By MICHAEL WINERIP
Published: April 12, 2012

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IN the early-morning hours of that Friday in February 2011, at around 3 a.m., George Desdunes and another Cornell sophomore were sitting on a couch blindfolded, their wrists and ankles bound with zip ties and duct tape.
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Abhishek Shah/Cornell Daily Sun

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon house the morning of Mr. Desdunes’s death.
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They had been kidnapped and driven to a town house somewhere on campus, one of the annual hazing rights of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. This particular ritual worked in reverse of most hazing. It was the freshmen pledges who kidnapped older students.

The two S.A.E. brothers were asked trivia questions about the fraternity. If they gave a wrong answer they were supposed to drink a shot of vodka. As George Desdunes’s roommate would later tell the police, “The purpose is to tie up the brother and get him drunk.”

The young man sitting on the couch beside Mr. Desdunes recalled downing four or five shots of vodka in 20 minutes and then vomiting into a garbage pail. The two were fed Pixy Stix, chocolate powder, strawberry syrup, a bite of a sandwich, hot sauce. “Something that felt like dish soap was dripped on my face,” said the 20-year-old sophomore, whose name was redacted from the police report. He drank more shots and vomited again.

Students later provided differing opinions on how threatening it was to be kidnapped. Some said Mr. Desdunes could have been cut loose at any time just by asking. “It was meant to be fun,” Edward Williams, a freshman pledge who was one of the kidnappers, told the police. Others wanted no part of it. Before going to bed, Mr. Desdunes’s roommate at the fraternity had locked their door, to guard against being kidnapped.

Eventually, Mr. Desdunes passed out and was loaded into the back seat of a Honda Pilot belonging to one of the brothers. At the fraternity, it took several people to carry him to his room, but when they found it locked, he was brought to the library and left on a leather couch.

They tilted his head, said Mr. Williams, so “he would vomit onto the floor” and not choke. Then they walked downstairs to the kitchen, made themselves something to eat and went to bed.

The S.A.E. house was quiet a few hours later, at 6:45 a.m., when the cleaning man and his father arrived for work. The place was worse than usual. There had been a beer pong tournament that night. Plastic cups were strewn all over. Furniture was broken. The room smelled like stale Keystone Light. After finishing the toilets, the younger cleaner walked by the library and noticed a student in a brown hoodie lying still. “I could see what looked like vomit or mucous on his mouth,” he told the police. “I tried to wake him by grabbing his foot to make sure he was O.K. There was no response.” Mr. Desdunes’s right pant leg was rolled up. One of the zip ties was around his ankle; a second zip tie with duct tape lay on the floor beside the couch.

The cleaners called 911.

When the police and firefighters arrived, they found an unresponsive male. He was not breathing, had no pulse and was cold to the touch. They laid him on the floor, cut off his sweatshirt, suctioned his throat and applied CPR. He was put on a stretcher and taken to a hospital in an ambulance.

The rescue workers remarked later that there was not a single fraternity brother in sight, just the cleaners, who told the police what they knew, then went downstairs to finish the kitchen.

HAZING is common on American campuses. A 2008 University of Maine study concluded that 55 percent of students who join fraternities, sororities, sports teams or other student groups experience it. Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four books on the subject, says that as long as there have been universities, there has been hazing: in 1657, two Harvard upperclassmen were fined and suspended for hazing. Mr. Nuwer has counted 104 deaths involving hazing since 1970.

In one high-profile case, a drum major in Florida A&M’s Marching 100 was beaten to death in November during a hazing on the band bus. While no arrests were made in that case, seven band members have been arrested since then in two other hazing incidents.

At Cornell, four students have been charged with hazing in connection with the Desdunes case and are scheduled to go on trial May 21. Education Life Preview
A Hazing at Cornell
Published: April 12, 2012

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(Page 2 of 5)

Samantha Paetz has built a law practice by suing fraternities involved in hazing cases. In 2010, he won a multimillion-dollar settlement for the family of Carson Starkey, a freshman at California Polytechnic State University, who had pledged the S.A.E. chapter there.
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Victoria Gao/Cornell Daily Sun

Mr. Desdunes stopped at Dino’s bar before the pledges picked him up in their mock kidnapping.
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Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Marie Andre, seen outside the Brooklyn courthouse, has filed suit against the fraternity in her son’s death. The criminal case against four of the pledges is set to begin in May.
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According to the police, the pledges were put in a garage, given large quantities of liquor and told to drink quickly while the brothers chanted “Puke and rally.” When Mr. Starkey passed out, fraternity members drove him to the hospital, but turned around for fear of being arrested. Mr. Starkey, 18, was placed on a mattress at the house, where he died. His blood alcohol level was about .40, five times the legal limit to drive.

As a condition of that settlement, S.A.E. officials agreed to post on their Web site every case in which a local chapter was put on probation, suspended or expelled by universities from 2007 to 2011. In five years, disciplinary action has been taken against nearly 80 of S.A.E.’s 223 chapters. A spokesman for S.A.E., Brandon Weghorst, declined to comment for this article, citing continuing litigation. (In the spirit of full disclosure: one of my sons belonged to an S.A.E. chapter for two years, and enjoyed his experience.)

Last June, Mr. Fierberg filed a $25 million lawsuit against S.A.E. on behalf of Mr. Desdunes’s mother, Marie Andre. A widow and Haitian immigrant living in Brooklyn, she worked as a nanny, hospital aide and AIDS counselor so her only child, George, could go to private schools.

In his essay for the Common Application, Mr. Desdunes wrote: “My family consists of two people. My Mom, Marie, and myself. Over the years I have come to realize the sacrifices that she has made for me in order to help me achieve something with my life.”

ALCOHOL is often the not-so-secret ingredient that turns pledging into hazing. Four of five fraternity and sorority members in this country are binge drinkers, according to a 2000 Harvard study. Mr. Nuwer estimates that 80 percent of hazing deaths have involved alcohol.

At least two national fraternities, Phi Delta Theta and Phi Kappa Sigma, have mandated that all their chapter houses be alcohol free. It makes a big difference, said James Favor, president of James R. Favor & Company, which sells insurance to 15 national fraternities. In the decade before Phi Delta Theta became alcohol free, the fraternity averaged 12.3 liability claims a year that paid out an average of $812,951 in settlements, Mr. Favor said. After the fraternity went dry in 2000, there were three claims a year at an average annual cost of $15,388.

In 2006, Mr. Favor’s firm was bought by a partnership of seven national fraternities, including S.A.E. Asked whether he recommends that fraternity houses ban alcohol, he said, “I make them aware of the effects of going from wet to dry.”

The fraternity has debated getting rid of alcohol. In a proposal submitted to the S.A.E. Eminent Supreme Recorder in 2010, Frank Ginocchio (S.A.E. Northwestern ’66) recommended that the constitution be amended to require that all chapters be alcohol free by Aug. 1, 2014. “This proposal takes into account that approximately two-thirds of our members are under the age of 21 and that most of our risk management incidents involve the abuse of alcohol,” he wrote. “Beneficial consequences of this change will be a better maintained housing facility, and a better environment for studying.”

Last July, at S.A.E.’s 155th national convention in Memphis, the 450 fraternity brothers present failed to give the measure the two-thirds majority needed for passage. “A big mistake,” said Mr. Fierberg. “These decisions ought to be made by experts in risk management, not underage drinkers.”

THREE freshmen pledges in the Cornell case — Mr. Williams, Max Haskin and Ben Mann — have been charged with misdemeanor hazing, a penalty that carries up to a year in jail.

(Page 3 of 5)

The records of a fourth pledge, who was 18 at the time and considered a juvenile, have been sealed. In addition to hazing he has been charged with tampering with evidence. After the police arrived at the fraternity house that morning, it was that fourth pledge who called his roommate and asked him to get rid of evidence of the kidnapping, according to court papers.
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The authorities subpoenaed his cellphone records and made a transcript: “I need you to do me a favor. It’s extremely urgent. Throw out all the zip ties and duct tape in the room, please. ASAP.”

Response: “All right, I’m heading back to the room. Is everything all right?”

“No, I can’t really talk right now. Please just get rid of it.”

Response: “Are they going to be searching our room? Should I take stuff out of the freezer?”

“Maybe.”

The police also recovered a receipt for six rolls of duct tape that was bought for $53 at Home Depot on the afternoon before Mr. Desdunes was kidnapped.

Link to the NY Times: https://myaccount.nytimes.com/auth/login?URI=http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/education/edlife/a-hazing-at-cornell.html&OQ=Q5fQ72Q3dQ31

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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