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Thoughtful New York Times essay on alcohol and fraternities by John Hechinger

Here is the essay link and a brief excerpt

Fraternity initiation season has just begun and already an 18-year-old freshman is dead. An investigation into the death of the student, who had been drinking at Louisiana State University’s Phi Delta Theta house, will most likely point to a familiar culprit: the toxic brew of alcohol and hazing.

The Louisiana case is only the latest example in a horrifying but persistent trend. At Penn State, 14 Beta Theta Pi members will soon face a criminal trial because a pledge, or new member, died of traumatic brain injuries in February. They are accused of ordering him to drink until he could barely stand.

Alcohol is the wellspring of most fraternity vice, and evidence shows that reducing drinking at chapters makes them safer — and not just for fraternity brothers. According to the National Institute of Justice, women who frequent frat parties are more likely to become victims of “incapacitated sexual assault.” Many fraternity brothers and alumni maintain that fraternities shouldn’t be blamed for excessive drinking — that it is just a part of college life — but the numbers tell a different story.

Study after study has shown that fraternity men are the heaviest drinkers on campus. According to Harvard public-health research, considered the most definitive, 86 percent of men living in chapter houses binge on alcohol, twice the level of those who live elsewhere. A University of Maine survey found that three-quarters of fraternity members report they’ve been hazed, including being forced to drink into unconsciousness.

Phi Delta Theta has mostly stayed out of the headlines until now, but as the death at L.S.U. shows, efforts to cut down drinking require constant vigilance. The success of public health campaigns provides an apt comparison: They haven’t eliminated smoking or drunken driving, but they have saved millions of lives.

Banning pledging, the dangerous monthslong initiation period, also helps. For about a decade, Sigma Alpha Epsilon had more hazing and alcohol-related deaths than any other fraternity; it banned pledging altogether in 2014, and since then insurance claims have dropped from an average of 13 a year to two, and no one has died from hazing or drinking. Enforcement has been key: More than 30 chapters have been closed for alcohol violations.

Measures that cut down on hazing and drinking don’t just protect students from danger, they can also shield their finances. When lawsuits proliferated and insurance premiums soared in the 1980s and 1990s, fraternities risked losing coverage for their considerable wealth, which includes more than $3 billion in real estate. They, with their insurers, created plans that excluded claims related to underage drinking, hazing and sexual assault.

It makes sense that fraternities didn’t want to provide insurance that, in effect, subsidized bad behavior.  Read more at the earlier link.

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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