SAN DIEGO — From Ithaca, N.Y., to State College, Penn., to Pullman, Wash., to San Diego, parents are in grief and asking a painful question:
Why did my child die in an incident that, on some level, involved a fraternity?
It’s an old, intractable problem that has been particularly horrifying this fall.
Since early October, a fraternity member has died at Cornell University, Pennsylvania State University, Washington State University and San Diego State University. All four were freshmen.
The fatalities include Dylan Hernandez, a 19-year-old SDSU student who died of accidental blunt force trauma on Nov. 8, according to the county medical examiner. A day earlier, he fell out of his top bunk bed at a campus dorm and struck his head.
SDSU police are investigating whether alcohol was a factor in the death of Hernandez, who returned to his dorm after attending an event at his fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta.
A comprehensive, verified list of fraternity deaths does not exist. But at least nine fraternity members have died at California universities since 2000, according to news reports and an unofficial database operated by Franklin College in Indiana.
The database also says that there has been at least one hazing-related death every year since 1959, most of which involved colleges and universities and many of which were tied to alcohol or some type of physical or psychological abuse.
It is not known whether Hernandez, who grew up near Jacksonville, Fla., had consumed alcohol or experienced hazing at his fraternity.
The national office of Phi Gamma Delta says it has placed its SDSU chapter “on suspension pending our review process.” And SDSU President Adela de la Torre this week created task forces to explore student safety and alcohol and substance misuse, which a particular focus on the Greek system.
“These kinds of deaths have been almost inevitable every year, for decades,” said Jhttps://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/story/2019-11-18/the-college-fraternity-problem-weekenderohn Hechinger, author of “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.
“There’s at least one due to drinking or hazing. Every few years, the colleges and fraternities talk about stamping it out. The case (at SDSU) shows that they’ve made far less progress than anyone would like.”
Researchers at the University of Maine define hazing as “any activity expected for someone joining a group (or to maintain full status in a group) that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and/or physical harm, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”
On one level, the fact that the problem exists is baffling.
Fraternities and sororities are meant to be forces of good. They’re social clubs whose missions mostly center on public service, scholarship, professional development, friendship and promoting ethical and moral behavior.
At UC San Diego, some fraternities and sororities achieve grade point averages that are significantly higher than the rest of the campus. The same thing occurs at SDSU where the Greeks are deeply involved in the school’s social life, doing everything from helping to promote anti-drug programs to rallying students at athletics events.
The Greek system has turned out some of the most influential figures in U.S. history, from presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and film director Stephen Spielberg.
But the Greek system also is frequently the source of trouble.
In early 2005, Chico State University freshman Matt Carrington was subjected to physical abuse that caused him to die of water intoxication, authorities said.
The following year, the California State Legislature passed “Matt’s Law,” which made it possible to file felony charges against people who engage in hazing that leads to serious injury or death.
The law doesn’t appear to have had a chilling affect on hazing.
Since its passage, students have died in hazing incidents at Fresno State University, Cal State Northridge and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, according to the Franklin College database.
The database and news reports also say that Noah Domingo, an 18-year-old freshman at UC Irvine, died of alcohol poisoning in January after attending a party at his fraternity. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office recently charged five members of the fraternity with misdemeanors for allegedly throwing a party where underage drinking was allowed.
In late October, the parents of UC Santa Cruz student Alex Beletis filed a lawsuit that claims that their son died as the result of an off-campus hazing incident.
And on Nov. 12, a fraternity member was found dead in Greek system housing at Arizona State University in Tempe. Authorities said it does not appear that hazing was involved. But as on Sunday, alcohol had not been ruled out as a factor.
Preventing such tragedies is proving to be difficult.
Like many schools, SDSU requires students who are beginning to join a fraternity or sorority to undergo training that spells out the university’s rules on hazing, alcohol, drugs and sexual conduct. SDSU also teaches students about the dangers of alcohol and drugs.
Despite such training, many of SDSU’s fraternities have been suspended, placed on probation or investigated in recent years due to disciplinary problems, including underage drinking.
At the time of Hernandez’s death, 10 out of the 14 fraternities in SDSU’s Interfraternity Council (IFC) were facing some form of judicial action by the university, SDSU officials said. After Hernandez was found injured, President de la Torre suspended all 14 IFC fraternities.
It’s the kind of problem that exists nationally, largely due to the nature of fraternities, say educators.
“The challenge comes with running self-governing chapters made up by 18-to-22 year-olds who, in most instances, don’t have adult supervision,” said Norm Pollard, who spent years dealing with the issue as dean of students at Alfred University in New York.
“The national chapter (of the fraternity) is usually several states away. They may stop by once or twice a year to see if they’re following the rules. But a lot of these chapters are located off-campus, and typically the university only has so much control over how they function.”
“It is not a residence hall. It’s not like Public Safety can go in and monitor their behavior.”
Bob Ottilie, a San Diego attorney who deals with fraternity issues, says universities have to share in the blame.
Most fraternities “are not aggressive supporters of banning beer and wine because their members all like to drink, and most of their alumni drank when they were in college,” Ottilie said.
“Their view is that it’s just ‘accepted’ that this is what young people do and that while it is unfortunate there are injuries and deaths, we can’t stop young people from doing what we did. The schools don’t do more because they don’t want a student revolt.”
SDSU is in the process of understanding the depth of its fraternity problems.
The school’s 32-officer police department is trying to piece together what happened in the hours before and after Hernandez left his room on the sixth floor of Tenochca Residence Hall on Nov. 6.
A SDSU student who knew Hernandez says the freshmen left the dorm in mid-evening on Nov. 6 to go to “Little-Big” night at Phi Gamma Delta. That’s the moment when a pledge is formally assigned a mentor. It has yet to be publicly established whether Hernandez consumed alcohol at the event.
Hernandez returned to the dorm later that night and climbed to the top of his bunk bed, which has a guard rail that is supposed to prevent a person from rolling out. But at some point, Hernandez did fall out of the bed and was injured.
A 911 call was made at 8:49 a.m. on Nov. 7, and Hernandez was transported to a nearby hospital. The following day, media organizations began to learn about the incident. Reporters pressed SDSU to respond to rumors that Hernandez had died. SDSU said he was still alive.
The county medical Examiner said that Hernandez had no brain activity on Nov. 8, and they declared him dead. A respirator was used to keep his body functioning long enough for the Hernandez family to say goodbye. The university announced the death on Nov. 11.
The tragedy has generated a lot of anger among SDSU students and parents. Many have said that it has long been known that the guard rails on the bunk bed aren’t sufficient to prevent a person from falling. Students and parents also are asking why SDSU didn’t act more forcefully, at an earlier date, to control bad behavior at its fraternities.
Many students also believe that the tragedy has overshadowed the good work that has long been done by SDSU’s Greek system.
SDSU President Adela de la Torre responded, in part, by creating two university task forces. One will focus on safety issues tied to student activities, especially those involving the Greek system. It is scheduled to issue a report and make recommendations on the matter next April.
The other task force will exam alcohol and substance misuse at SDSU. It will make a report and recommendations on July 1.
The reaction has been a bit mixed.
“This could be an important conversation,” said Michael Cline, assistant news editor at the Daily Aztec, the school newspaper.
“It’s important that they have clear findings and recommendations, and that action follows. If the task forces are worthwhile, we will get a clear sense of why the death happened and a clear idea of how to prevent this sort of thing in the future.”
Ottilie said, “Forming the task forces, per se, is not a negative. If in the end they change little, then they will have been window dressing to get SDSU through the immediate crisis.
“I would have been more impressed had (de la Torre) actually taken the step that really needs to be taken, which is to begin aggressively enforcing existing alcohol bans in all student residences.”
Substantive change may be elusive.
“The unfortunate passing of Dylan Hernandez will make everyone at SDSU stop and reflect on their own decisions — if in fact alcohol-drugs was a contributing factor,” said San Diego defense attorney David Shapiro, who sometimes handles cases involving colleges and universities.
“However, for those under investigation related to this death, their lives shall never be the same.”
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