At a Campus Scarred by Hazing, Cries for Help
It is a new school year at Binghamton University, one of the most prestigious public institutions in the Northeast. But the most urgent order of business is one left over from the last school year — a hazing scandal that forced the university to suspend pledging and induction at all fraternities and sororities.
The university has a new dean of students and a renewed focus on curbing hazing. But a review of complaints submitted to the administration last year indicates just how overmatched Binghamton has been. While student deaths at Cornell and Florida A&M Universities last year have drawn widespread attention to dangerous behavior in student organizations, the reports, obtained recently by The New York Times, provide a rare look into the fraternity and sorority culture on an American campus.
Sunni Solomon, the university’s assistant director of Greek life from 2010 until July, said in an e-mail, “My entire tenure from start to finish, I was scared to death that someone was going to die.”
No one died. But the reports, mostly anonymous e-mails and phone calls, depict students, parents and alumni essentially begging the university to find a way to crack down on hazing.
One student said his friends seemed “always weary, anxious and even paranoid” as a result of the hazing. “I am worried about their safety as they seem to no longer care about what is done toward them,” the student wrote.
One father cited text messages from his son, which could “only be interpreted as desperately reaching out for help.” He said they included descriptions of being forced to stand out in the cold in his underwear, prevented from sleeping for prolonged periods of time and not being allowed to leave the fraternity all weekend. “To be frank, I am shocked and mortified that this is allowed to go on at your institution,” he wrote.
One junior, who expressed great love for the university, relayed accounts from two pledges. One said her sorority threw pledges into a freezing shower where they had to recite the Greek alphabet. Another reported being forced to eat concoctions meant to make pledges vomit on one another and to hold hot coals from hookahs in their hands. The e-mail concluded: “Save the innocent and naïve who can’t seem to save themselves.”
Forced drinking, a staple of college hazing, comes up in a few reports. There also were reports of students’ getting frostbite from walking barefoot in the snow. One said pledges, blindfolded, driven miles from campus and relieved of their phones, were expected to find their own way home. Another said a fraternity branded pledges on the leg, back or buttocks.
Several reports claimed that some of the hazing continued even after organizations received warnings or after the university suspended pledging.
Officials at Binghamton — part of the State University of New York system — declined to say whether individual students had been disciplined but said 3 of the 53 sanctioned Greek organizations were currently banned from recruiting members. The university’s Web site says one sorority received a disciplinary warning, one fraternity was placed on probation and two fraternities remain under investigation.
Although hazing is a crime in New York State, no one was charged in Binghamton. In April, the Binghamton police visited Alpha Pi Epsilon, also known as APES, an unsanctioned fraternity housed in a 9,600-square-foot Greek Revival mansion near downtown. There had been reports of nightly hazing involving “rigorous exercise, alcohol consumption, paddling and ‘waterboarding’ where the pledges were being hosed down,” a police report said. It added: “Information was also reported that some of the pledges had acquired pneumonia from the ‘waterboarding.’ ”
Sgt. Michael Senio said that without a sworn complaint from someone willing to come forward, the police could not enter the building where the occupants, according to the report, responded with “a lot of attitude and very little cooperation.”
Brian T. Rose, the university’s vice president for student affairs, said the biggest shock to him was how many organizations were the subject of complaints. “It gave me a sense of pervasiveness about the problem that surprised me,” he said.
Mr. Rose said there needed to be a long-term approach to curbing hazing. “It’s not going to be one semester,” he said. “It’s not going to be one year.”
But he emphasized that unless students were motivated to change the culture, “the game of trying to police 50-something different organizations across I don’t know how many miles of the city of Binghamton is not something we’re going to be able to do.”By PETER APPLEBOME
September 18, 2012
New York Times