After freeze on alcohol didn’t last, KU fraternities working on other plans to limit hazing, abuse
photo by: Journal-World File Photos
In KU fraternity and sorority circles, it is known as “Shark Night.”
It occurs right after the recruitment period for new sorority members ends. During that period, both existing and prospective sorority members are given strict instructions: Stay away from the “three B’s” — boys, bars and booze.
But once the recruitment period is over, so, too, is the prohibition on the “three B’s.” Shark Night, the first night of school, is one of the largest party nights of the year at fraternities and off-campus housing. If it seems like a potentially dangerous recipe, that’s because it can be, according to some student leaders.
“In terms of safety, it is one of the worst nights for sexual assaults,” said Jason Frederick, director of conduct for the University of Kansas’ student-led Inter-Fraternity Council.
Whether it was events like Shark Night that spurred it is unclear, but in March 2018, leaders of the IFC did something bold: They instituted an indefinite freeze on alcohol at fraternity sanctioned events. The freeze would be in place while leaders studied ways to address what Chancellor Douglas Girod called “systemic problems” in the fraternity system.
The freeze put KU in the company of other major universities such as Florida State, Penn State and Texas State that had made fraternity reform a priority after dealing with their own incidents. But KU wouldn’t remain in that company for long. The freeze lasted for four days.
Despite the chancellor making strong statements about its need — his official statement said the systemic problems were ones “we must address” — the full governing board of the IFC voted to end the freeze. The board said the freeze originally was improperly approved by a handful of executive members of the board in violation of the group’s constitution. Further, there were allegations that KU administrators had strong-armed the IFC leaders into the freeze, something the administration has denied.
Although the freeze didn’t go as planned, it did open up a number of issues prevalent within fraternities at KU — hazing, sexual assault and alcohol abuse among them. An administrator with KU last week told the Journal-World the underlying issues that led to the four-day freeze remain serious.
“While (chapter presidents) didn’t like the way the freeze happened, they did recognize that we have a problem, and we are very close to becoming dangerous,” said Amy Long Schell, associate director of sorority and fraternity life at KU. “We are at a very close place that something could go wrong, so we need to do something about it.”
Details about the underlying issues that led to the short-lived freeze aren’t entirely clear. Long Schell said the number of hazing reports played a key role in the IFC-imposed freeze. In April, Girod told the Journal-World that the “systemic problems” he cited were alcohol violations and hazing-related events. The Journal-World was unable to obtain data that shows how many hazing reports were made during the last school year. Representatives of KU’s office for student affairs and student conduct did not return calls or emails for this article.
When student leaders took the steps to end the freeze, they also said they were going to create a plan to address many of the issues that had led to it. Thus far, there has been no formal report released about the steps being taken by fraternity leaders at KU to solve hazing and alcohol abuse issues. But in interviews with the Journal-World, Long Schell, as well as members of the IFC, were able to provide some insight into what the new “strategic initiative” entails. The initiative includes:
• A “Self-Reporting Hazing Amnesty Policy” that has been developed by IFC. The policy gives chapters the chance to act on reports made by fraternity members and chapter leaders to the office of student conduct and IFC about hazing incidents. Chapter leaders do not have to worry about retribution from IFC or student conduct, depending on the degree of safety concern for those being hazed, Frederick said. Under this policy, IFC members work to develop a chapter-specific plan to stop hazing before it gets to a dangerous point.
The policy will also build a relationship of trust between chapters and the conduct office, said Frederick, who was involved in writing the policy with a hazing prevention expert.
“There’s just a very antagonistic view of (student conduct) right now,” he said. “Where people don’t trust the university, even though the conduct office is very much trying to help our chapters. They’re just trying to make sure that we’re safe.”
Hank Nuwer, a freelance journalist and author who has studied hazing since the 1970s, said the policy sounds like a good one, but won’t work if hazing is reported only after it has reached a dangerous point.
• More details about pledge periods. There will be a requirement for chapter leaders to send a new member education work plan to Long Schell and the other advisers at the Sorority and Fraternity Life office. The plans will provide KU officials with details on activities in place during the period before a member is initiated into the fraternity, often referred to as “pledgeship.” This period is when most hazing occurs, and the work plan aims at prevention.
• A guest list requirement. In partnership with the Panhellenic Association council, which governs KU sororities, IFC plans to develop new social policies geared at preventing sexual assault and alcohol abuse, and at encouraging accountability.
This social policy will require fraternities and sororities to produce a guest list for every social event, including parties thrown at fraternities. The guest list ensures that everyone at the party is accounted for if anything wrong were to happen, Frederick said. The policy should go into effect this semester after being put up to a general assembly vote.
• Abuse prevention training. IFC and PHA plan to continue partnerships with the Sexual Assault Prevention Education Center and alcohol abuse educators, Frederick said.
IFC and PHA have had the partnership with SAPEC for some time, said Robert Adams, IFC director of public relations. The two groups work to educate members about consent, being a bystander and how to talk about sexual assault. IFC brings in speakers on drug and alcohol abuse to talk with fraternity members.
• Greater alumni outreach. A meeting in 2018 revealed that some fraternity alumni didn’t know about the “shark night” tradition, Frederick said. The hope is that by communicating in more detail with fraternity alumni, those alumni members can provide more leadership about appropriate activities and practices.
The alcohol issue
KU isn’t the first school to show concerns of hazing and alcohol abuse in fraternities.
In the past year, hazing and alcohol-related deaths at Penn State, Florida State and Texas State, among others, led schools to suspend greek activities indefinitely. The University of Michigan and Ohio State University are among schools that have suspended greek life because of rampant hazing and alcohol abuse.
In August 2017, university officials at Kansas State University decided to reclassify greek organizations as “independent student organizations.” When greek organizations get in trouble, the university is not liable for it.
Most recently, the University of Missouri announced steps to improve fraternity and sorority life. Unlike KU, Mizzou has released a formal report with more than half a dozen reform suggestions, including a system that could prohibit freshmen from living in fraternity houses. The Mizzou task force report also recommends limits on when fraternities and sororities could have events with alcohol.
Hazing, which often involves extreme consumption of alcohol, is the biggest concern of KU leadership, Long Schell said. Nuwer, the journalist who studies hazing incidents, said it should be. The statistics show alcohol is a major factor in most hazing-related deaths.
Nuwer has been working with officials from Penn State to develop a database of all hazing deaths, starting in 1838. Based on Nuwer’s research, in the past seven years, 80 percent of hazing deaths were alcohol-related.
“That’s where the big problem comes,” he said.
People haze because of “a desire to belong to part of something that’s greater than oneself,” Nuwer said. Many people who are disgusted by the hazing don’t leave because of pride.
“They don’t want to let their fellow pledges down by quitting because they bonded with them,” he said. “Hazing, in a perverse way, does create bonding with the pledges.”
It takes a comprehensive look at hazing practices by IFC and university officials to prevent hazing-related consequences, Nuwer said. IFC members can introduce hazing alternatives that still bond members and limit activities that involve alcohol and are negligent, Nuwer said.
KU officials aren’t expecting changes overnight. Long Schell said the process is going to take time, in part, because it involves changing a culture.
Adding to the difficulty is that KU’s fraternity system isn’t easily monitored. Leaders agree there is no police force or other such mechanism that can monitor every fraternity activity or event. In turn, Frederick, the IFC leader, said his organization can’t take action on problems that aren’t reported.
As it stands now, self-policing by fraternities is going to be a critical part of any change that is to come.
“Part of the issue is, we can have all of these rules, but the organizations themselves have to follow them,” he said.