On one October night last fall, the newest members of the Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity at Washington State University were allegedly told to line up in the "party room," with their knees and noses touching the wall. The lights went dark. Pillowcases were put over their heads. Forty-ounce bottles of Hurricane malt liquor were tied to their hands.
Finish the bottles, the members were told, and they'd be let off the wall. It was a game they called "Edward Forty-Hands."
The alleged incident described above is one of several allegations of hazing at the Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity detailed in official records obtained by the Inlander. The investigation, by the university and the fraternity's national headquarters, eventually led to the frat being shut down in December.
The discipline meted out to the fraternity mirrors actions taken across the nation following reports of hazing. With a string of deaths across the U.S., universities and Interfraternity Councils at colleges are taking new measures to prevent hazing and alcohol from putting more students at risk, says Hank Nuwer, a Franklin College professor who for decades has researched and documented hazing.
"This last year there's been a shift in how things are done," Nuwer says.
Yet even with more attention on the issue, changing the Greek culture has proven difficult. The alleged hazing at Alpha Kappa Lambda occurred less than a year after WSU's Panhellenic and Interfraternity councils announced in 2016 a "culture-changing" plan to cut down on sexual violence, drug and alcohol abuse. Still, according to notes from WSU investigators of the hazing at AKL, some members remain confused about what constitutes hazing.
"We didn't think what we were doing was wrong," an AKL member said.
'THE PARTY ROOM'
WSU began in October to investigate several incidents that took place at Alpha Kappa Lambda starting near the beginning of the first semester. Two new fraternity members had been hospitalized — one in August 2017 for alcohol poisoning, and one in October with a concussion. The investigative records also described how the fraternity would take the belongings of new members and force them against the wall to berate them, force them to do wall sits, or tape alcohol to their hands for them to drink.
Those initial allegations were all confirmed to be true, WSU Dean of Students Kathy MacKay says. In December, days before the fraternity was shuttered, members "admitted to everything," she says. MacKay says what was concerning was that upperclassmen pressured new, underage members into drinking and they used physical restraints.
"This was clearly hazing," MacKay tells the Inlander.
Hazing has gone on for centuries, says Nuwer, who has studied its history extensively. But combined with alcohol, it turns potentially lethal, he says. Nuwer has attempted to track every hazing death at universities since 1838. He found that since 1961, there's been at least one death per year. And when alcohol increasingly became part of fraternity culture, starting in the 1980s, deaths similarly went up. The decade kicked off with seven hazing deaths in 1980, and an average of 2.6 deaths each year. In the '90s, the rate increased slightly to 2.7 deaths per year, before increasing to 3.7 per year in the 2000s. So far this decade there's been an average of nearly 5 deaths per year, according to Nuwer's research.
But in 2017, something changed. Nuwer says it started with the death of Tim Piazza, a Beta Theta Pi pledge at Penn State University who was forced to drink too much alcohol in a hazing ritual. After he fell down the stairs, fraternity members put him on the couch, where he fell and hit his head multiple times and received a brain injury. His brothers waited nearly 12 hours before calling for medical aid, and Piazza died. The media coverage of the grisly death, Nuwer says, brought more attention to the issue.
Then in mid-September, an 18-year-old pledge at Louisiana State University named Maxwell Gruver died in an alleged fraternity hazing incident.
"Those two incidents put fear into universities," Nuwer says.
Likewise, the two new AKL members taken to the Pullman Regional Hospital caused WSU concern, MacKay says. Investigative notes reveal that on Aug. 20, the last night of Rush Week — when fraternities recruit students — one upperclassman at AKL heard about a new member who was sick. The upperclassman walked into the bathroom, according to the upperclassman's account of the incident, and found the new member "flopping" around, "vomiting and throwing his upper body around while staying seated."
The upperclassman took him to the hospital, and the new member was released by early the next morning. (In the records provided to the Inlander, in response to a public records request, names of students were redacted.)
In early October, days before WSU launched their investigation of hazing, a new fraternity member fell out of his bed after drinking and got a concussion, MacKay says. He was taken to the hospital.
Incidents alleged to be hazing took place in what the frat called the "party room." There, records say, new members were forced to finish bottles of beer. When they did "Edward Forty-Hands," one new member reported that his hand was taped to another member's hand with a bottle in between. Each person had another bottle taped to his free hand. They were told to finish all three bottles between the two of them.
At least once, the upperclassmen dumped out bean bags and made the new members clean all of it up while taped to another person. In another incident, a new member had his finger burned by an upperclassman's lighter used to illuminate the dark party room, according to records.
Yet upperclassmen interviewed said that these types of things happened when they were pledges, too. And, at first, they told the school it was character building. One member said it was "not meant with malicious intent," and instead was supposed to be about teaching accountability. He said the "definition of hazing has become muddy."
But Jeremy Slivinski, CEO of the fraternity at its headquarters, told the members at WSU that the incidents were "abusive and a demonstration as to why fraternities are viewed poorly in this day and age. Brothers don't hurt each other to prove or receive a demonstration of loyalty."
The individual students involved are facing charges through the university's student-conduct process that could result in discipline, MacKay says.
"We take this stuff really seriously," MacKay says. "Protecting the health and safety of our students is critical."
To prevent future hazing incidents, Nuwer says there needs to be a change in culture. Fraternities are founded on principles of camaraderie and loyalty to one another. When they get in trouble, they tend to cover for one another.
"There's a lot of self-delusion after the incident," Nuwer says.
Fraternity members don't know when they're hazed, he says, because often they can't identify hazing behaviors. And when they try to reform the system, they often get pressure from alumni.
Tyler O'Brien, a WSU student and president of the Interfraternity Council, says he's aware of and supports the movement across campuses to curb hazing. The IFC is working on new education materials that will prevent hazing at all of WSU's fraternities.
He admits turning around the culture will be a "constant battle." In his view, the challenge is less on educating about what hazing is, and more about why it's wrong.
When asked about the alleged hazing at AKL, he says, "everyone knows that's hazing."
Nuwer's prediction for how the issue could be solved, and lives saved, is a bit more involved than education and prevention efforts. He hopes someone besides him, ideally the government, would start tracking hazing deaths. He wants to shorten Rush Week. Mainly, though, he predicts more and more fraternity houses going dry by banning alcohol.
"I think they have no other choice," Nuwer says.♦