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Salt Lake City Tribune reports that Utah State has reversed its decision

Task force to review USU oversight of student groups
Hazing death » Officials want to prevent future tragedies.

By Brian Maffly

The Salt Lake Tribune

Salt Lake Tribune
Updated:01/07/2009 05:38:52 PM MST

In response to criminal hazing charges stemming from a freshman’s death, Utah State University vowed to look inward to determine what could have been done to prevent the tragedy and to improve oversight of fraternities and other campus groups.

President Stan Albrecht on Wednesday announced “the formation of a task force to review university policy relating to the operation of student organizations at all of its campuses.” The task force will include faculty and administrators who will examine measures other schools deploy to thwart hazing and alcohol abuse, then make recommendations.

“We want to turn over every rock to ensure we are doing everything within our power to keep our students safe,” said provost Raymond Coward. “The death of one of our students is more than reason for us to review and examine every aspect of our policies. If there are steps we can take to help us better ensure that we are doing all we can to prevent future tragic losses, we will steadfastly pursue those actions.”

Charges filed Friday against 12 students allege not only that Michael Starks, 18, was hazed, but that the lethal alcohol-fueled event was part of an initiation tradition among local chapters of the Sigma Nu fraternity and Chi Omega sorority. Participants and a past pledge admitted to police that teenage sorority women encourage fresh Sigma Nu initiates to consume toxic quantities of vodka that the women provide.

Among those charged are the sorority and fraternity chapters as organizations and the fraternity chapter’s top officers, Cody Littlewood and Timothy Weber, who were not present at the off-campus home where Starks drank most of a liter bottle of booze. Littlewood declined to be interviewed.

Albrecht’s announcement came two days after USU general counsel Craig Simper told The Tribune that the school was not planning to increase oversight of Greek-letter clubs. The task-force announcement left officials straining to square the two positions.

“That was showing strictly the legal side,” said USU spokesman John DeVilbiss. “There is another side that this is a huge concern. We are all asking if there is something we could do differently.”

Many Greek activities are secret affairs that exclude outsiders. University officials have no way of knowing what goes on during these events, so they can only expect members to honor their national organizations’ ideals and the USU Student Code, which bans hazing and underage drinking, Simper said on Monday.

Accordingly, officials plan to initiate disciplinary proceedings against students identified in the police investigation and keep the Starks family apprised of any action.

Sigma Nu has been the scene of past alcohol infractions, but university officials say they cannot recall disciplining any Greek member for hazing in the past. Before USU suspended Sigma Nu and Chi Omega after Starks’ death, 10 Greek chapters with 308 members were affiliated with the university. These self-governing chapters answer to national offices, which emphasize lofty ideals of community service, scholastic achievement and personal integrity. They also take a hard line against hazing and alcohol abuse.

The world’s largest sorority with 173 chapters and 16,000 undergraduate members, Chi Omega sponsors the Web site hazingprevention.org and a video addressing bystander behavior.

“We do a lot to emphasize our policies on human dignity that take a strong anti-hazing stance,” said the sorority’s Memphis-based executive director, Anne Emmerth, who was unable to respond to the specifics allegations against her Logan chapter.

“We had held off doing our own inquiry until the police completed their investigation,” Emmerth said. “We want to work as quickly as we can to be fair to our members and the chapter, but we also want to have the best possible information.”

bmaffly@sltrib.com

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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