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Texas A & M FOIA request yields shotgunned goat, abused pledges

Here is the story

By VIMAL PATEL–Battalion

A pet goat shot in the head by a Texas A&M fraternity member was one of five reports that led to a weeklong moratorium on Greek Life social activities in November.

Documents obtained by The Eagle through an open records request lack key details — incident locations, student names and fraternity names have been redacted — but they show what led the director of Greek Life to call a university-wide Greek assembly and create a task force to examine standards.

“There has been an overall spike among our Greeks in drinking, hazing, improper conduct, etc.,” wrote Lt. Gen. Joe Weber, vice president for student affairs, in a Nov. 14 e-mail to President R. Bowen Loftin.

A fraternity member grabbed a 12-gauge shotgun in early October and walked to his pet goat, who had a Facebook page and many friends, according to an investigator’s report by a Student Affairs employee.

“The goat was immediately killed on contact,” stated a report dated Nov. 3. “He took the carcass and left sometime afterwards. The shotgun was immediately put back in his vehicle.”

The incident at the chapter’s off-campus house, in which 12 pledges were present, violated a university rule that bars the possession or use of firearms on the premises of chapter houses.

One pledge who learned about the shooting the next day said some were “shocked” by it, while another member said he did not think to report it and felt it was a “non-issue,” the report stated.

Hazing, according to A&M, is defined partly as “any action or situation created … to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule.”

Slaying a goat — or even a pet dog or cat — isn’t illegal if it’s your own and not done cruelly, said Brazos County Attorney Rod Anderson, whose office prosecutes misdemeanor crimes. None of the reports appear to have risen to a criminal level, and his office hasn’t seen a case from the recent slate of incidents.

‘In charge of hazing’

All the complaints were received within weeks during the fall semester. Investigators’ reports found:

* Pledges were lined up and hit with paddles during a retreat Oct. 22 to 24 at a ranch owned by a member’s parents. One said they were “tapped” with a paddle but it “wasn’t bad.” During the same retreat, pledges were confined in a cellar for, according to an active member, about 30 minutes during one incident. A pledge said he believed the incident was meant to intimidate them.

* The initial investigation into that retreat was sparked with a report of a pledge being knocked unconscious during a hazing incident, but the pledge in question told an investigator that he was only dazed and the injury occurred as he and an active member were “wrestling or horsing around.”

* A member or members of a fraternity — the one involved in the goat incident — filled a two-liter bottle with Dr Pepper, jalapenos and kitchen spices, and had eight new members sit around a fire and finish it as it went around the circle. They succeeded, but four threw up or spat it out.

* A pledge was asked to write a 500-word essay to a member, the topic being why fraternities are better than the Corps of Cadets, and to write a poem for the member. The same pledge complained of “intense” bouts of verbal abuse.

* A member — who according to some pledges was shirtless and had a baseball bat — yelled and knocked a pledge off his seat and had “physical contact with some other pledges.” The member’s demeanor led the pledges to quickly exit the house and enter into their cars to leave. According to one pledge, they were pelted with mustard, water and alcohol as they left. One of the members — it’s unclear who — was described several ways by pledges, including as being in charge of hazing.

In the same report, a student complained about “servitude,” essentially spending up to 30 hours a week completing chores for members such as washing dishes and doing laundry. The student quit after three weeks.

“They try to control your life by assigning pledges more and more tasks,” he wrote. “Unfortunately many other fraternities at Texas A&M are similar to this. Even the pledges have told me that you have to expect this to happen, but I didn’t join [name of fraternity redacted] to be hazed.”

‘Not far away from a tragedy’

Greek Life and Student Life leaders declined to discuss details of the incidents, but the inquiries — being conducted by Student Affairs investigators — aren’t all complete yet, said Anne Reber, dean of Student Life.

The findings of the investigators are reviewed by a conduct panel, which typically is composed of three or so university staff members. The punishment can range from a letter of reprimand to expulsion, and students have access to an appeals process.

The reports in the fall led to a brief ban on social activities and alcohol consumption, and a meeting in Rudder Auditorium that 75 percent of members of each chapter were required to attend. Texas A&M has in the range of 3,300 to 3,600 students spread over 57 sororities or fraternities.

Since the Nov. 18 meeting, no additional complaints have been filed, said Nick Zuniga, assistant director of Greek Life.

“It’s definitely an issue that the university and the department [of Greek Life] take seriously,” Zuniga said. “The students are going to do a lot more education among themselves as well as risk management and image issues, and hold each other accountable.”

The hundreds of pages of documents show Greek Life director Ann Goodman and other officials scrambling to gather up investigators to deal with the flurry.

On Nov. 10, Goodman’s office received its fifth report of hazing of new members, when the typical entire year sees about two to five such reports, Zuniga has said. And the semester also brought with it several alcohol overdoses, including some that led to emergency room visits.

The same day, Goodman received a report from university police about arrests and citations at a fraternity tailgate event, and then word that a sorority ring dunk was being planned and T-shirts were being made.

She immediately issued the moratorium.

In one e-mail dated Nov. 11, she wrote she was not confident in the Greek community and its ability to responsibly host events with alcohol, hold their members accountable and transition in new members and that “I am concerned that we are not far away from a tragedy.”

Weber, the student affairs chief, also wrote in an e-mail that action is “necessary,” though he said the incident could have been handled with less media attention. In a Nov. 15 e-mail, A&M spokesman Jason Cook wrote to Weber that local media are reporting on the moratorium. Weber responded, “believe we could have avoided as much publicity as we’re get’n had it been handled tighter.”

Privacy law in question

The redactions of fraternity names were made under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, said Suzy Yeager, Texas A&M’s director of open records.

FERPA, also known as the Buckley Amendment, states that “records, files, documents and other materials” that contain “information directly related to a student” must be kept private.

But an open-government advocate, Houston attorney Joe Larsen, said it’s a stretch to redact fraternity and sorority names under the act.

“They’re just wrong on this one,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to ID the specific persons in the hazing just by IDing the fraternities or sororities. It’s not a record directly related to the student.”

Scott Kelly, the A&M System’s deputy general counsel, said that, in the context of all the documents released, organization names could either identify or narrow the possibilities to a small number of students.

“What’s being withheld is information that would lead you to the identity of the individuals in these education records,” Kelly said.

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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