I have written a lot over the years about Greek life on college campuses, most often about the research showing higher levels of binge drinking among fraternities and sororities. Increasingly, I’ve been writing about deaths due to fraternity hazing, including that of Maxwell Gruver of Roswell at Louisiana State University.
Nine months ago, Gruver was found unconscious on a couch at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house. The death of the Blessed Trinity High School graduate was blamed on a two-hour raucous initiation ritual in which pledges were forced to gulp down 190-proof liquor. At the time of his death, Gruver had a blood alcohol level more than six times the legal limit for drivers. The cause of death was acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration.
Four former LSU students were indicted – one on negligent homicide and three others with hazing - in his death. In April, they pleaded not guilty. The frat has been banned from LSU's campus.
Louisiana responded to Gruver’s death with a set of new laws to discourage hazing and intensify penalties. Gruver’s parents and two younger siblings attended the signing 12 days ago in Louisiana.
One of the bills signed by Gov. John Bel Edwards is called the Max Gruver Act. The law allows tougher punishments for hazing. People who participate in hazing that leads to an alcohol-related death would face up to five years in prison and fines of up to $10,000.
Gruver is not the first metro Atlanta student to die from hazing. In 2011, Robert Champion of DeKalb County died aboard a Florida A&M University bus following a football game after being pummeled by other members of the school’s Marching 100 band with fists and instruments during a ritual known as "crossing Bus C.” Champion was a drum major, a coveted position awarded to band members who prove themselves as leaders.
At least one student dies every year in a hazing incident. However, there were four deaths in 2017, including Gruver.
Timothy Piazza, 19, died during a hazing incident at Penn State in February of 2017 at a Beta Theta Pi pledge acceptance party.
Prosecutors say pledges were run through something called "the gauntlet." They drank large amounts of alcohol very quickly. Piazza was given 18 drinks in 82 minutes.
At around 11 p.m. Timothy fell head-first down a flight of stairs. He was moved to a couch where he stayed for a few hours. Then prosecutors say he stumbled around the house before again falling down the same stairs. His new fraternity brothers didn't call for help until about 12 hours after the first fall.
Many frat members present at the event now face charges. Penn State moved quickly to permanently ban Beta Theta Pi. However, it also imposed multi-year suspensions on 13 other Greek organizations for safety violations, some discovered by university monitors who now make spot checks. The university assumed control of the fraternity and sorority organizational misconduct and adjudication process, and instituted a new recruitment policy delaying rush until students have completed a full semester.
The state of Pennsylvania is now considering new laws that would add harsher penalties for hazing.
A 2008 study, “Hazing in View: College Students at Risk,” found 55 percent of college students involved in clubs, teams and organizations experienced hazing. In his research, Hank Nuwer, the author of four books on hazing, reports 82 percent of deaths from hazing involve alcohol use, either by the victim or the perpetrator.
When I interviewed Nuwer a few years ago, I asked why young people endure hazing. "We cannot get enough of wanting to be wanted. Students think that joining this fraternity or this band constitutes whether or not they have a happy college experience," he said.
After Gruver’s death last fall, I interviewed journalist John Hechinger, who had just come out with the book, "True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities.” He noted only 20 percent of students on a campus may be Greek, but said the Greek influence is far-reaching. "What other group on a campus has 20 percent membership? They have a dominant influence on student government because they are a huge voting bloc. They have the spaces that are private where you can have alcohol and serve underage people," he explained.
Hechinger was on a recent panel on Greek life at The New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum in which the question was raised whether it’s time for campuses to finally ban frats. I thought his answer was interesting:
“If we were going to create a higher education system from scratch, would we have organizations that year after year kill a student? Probably not. But they are very ensconced in higher education, and if you try to do some kind of ban, which is often what people are asking, you run the risk of underground behavior.”
Writing today in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jim Piazza, the father of the young man who died at Penn State, said:
Should fraternities be abolished? This is a question I have often asked myself in the 15 months since my son Tim died at the hands of his future fraternity “brothers” in an out-of-control, alcohol-infused hazing event at Pennsylvania State University.
My initial reaction: Yes, they should all be gone.
However, as time has passed and I’ve thought about it more, I now realize this is not a question I can or should answer. It is a question fraternities must answer for themselves.
One thing I can say for sure, after 15 months of learning about fraternities, is that we need to see significant reform of the Greek system in this country. Many of the leaders of the national fraternities and sororities that I have met with and spoken to agree that we are at a critical juncture when it comes to keeping our students safe.