Hazing Lawsuit: And the Deaths Keep Coming

A frat member has a radical proposal for preventing more tragedies like the one at the center of a $25 million wrongful-death lawsuit.

Courtesy of the Desdunes family

Another promising life ended, another senseless death in the name of brotherhood. The latest victim making headlines is Cornell University sophomore George Desdunes, a 19-year-old Haitian immigrant, who died on Feb. 25 from alcohol poisoning while pledging Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

The aspiring doctor allegedly had his hands bound with zip ties and duct tape and then was forced to guzzle liquor after he made a mistake reciting fraternity history. After passing out, he was dumped on the couch, where he died. His blood alcohol content was .409, five times the legal limit.

Desdunes' mother, Maria Lourdes Andre, has filed a $25 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the fraternity, and Cornell has revoked the fraternity chapter's charter. Andre was clear about the message she wanted her lawsuit to send.

"With the death of my son, I find some comfort in knowing that this lawsuit may bring some changes in fraternities that will prevent other families from suffering as I have," Andre said. Unfortunately, if past history is any indication, Andre's hope of future change is sadly unlikely to come to fruition.

Desdunes was pledging a predominantly white fraternity, but both white and black Greek-letter organizations have dismal records when it comes to hazing-related injuries and deaths. Each year, campuses across the country report acts of brutality between members and pledges, with the police often having to be called. Since 1970 there has been at least one hazing-related death on a college campus each year.

In the course of my own research, I've noticed that when it comes to Greek-letter organizations and hazing, drinking alcohol is typically the focus with white organizations, while in black groups, hazing tends to center around brutalizing pledges. In 2008 Sigma Alpha Epsilon was at the center of another hazing death when a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student, Carson Starkey, died from alcohol poisoning while pledging the fraternity.

And among the black fraternities, Phi Beta Sigma was sued for $97 million after Prairie View A&M student Donnie Wade II collapsed and died while running around a track at 4 in the morning. Although Phi Beta Sigma member Marvin Jackson stated to police, "I killed him, it's all my fault," a grand jury declined to indict him.

And that's part of the problem. For the past two decades, the national organizations of college fraternities and sororities have tried a number of anti-hazing measures, from changing their intake processes to creating zero-tolerance policies. Yet most of it doesn't really work. Why?

All of the things that make Greek-letter organizations gratifying to join -- the tradition, the rituals, the secrecy, the challenges, the brotherhood -- are the same attributes that create a fertile atmosphere for abuse.

As a college-fraternity member, if you want to haze a pledge, it's not very hard to do. You simply form a conspiracy with your fellow fraternity brothers and agree to keep your illegal activities secret. Often you can get the tacit approval of alumni brothers, particularly those who recently left the chapter and continue to interact with the chapter, and then you tell the pledges that if they want respect, they'll pledge illegally.