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.
Most of our hazing abusers are not interested in creating a great fraternity member. For one, it's the height of arrogance to think that you, as a fraternity member, are going to change someone who has been formed by parents, teachers, community members and so on for the past 18 to 21 years. But we hold on to this myth of transformation as a convenient excuse for abuse.
Hazers want and seek the power that comes with being able to order subservient pledges to do whatever they want. And for the pledges, the feeling of validation as a man, having gone through some trials and tribulations, is what motivates their continued participation in hazing activities.
So where do we go from here? Greek organizations have tried changing policies, introducing harsh punishments and appealing to the better nature of their members, but none of these efforts have been complete successes. They have succeeded in setting parameters for acceptable behavior, but we need to take another step.
One of the critical flaws of college fraternities and sororities is not that they exist but that college members, often immature and undisciplined, are involved in the intake process in the first place. The evidence is overwhelming that college students aren't up to the task of conducting a safe and abuse-free process on a large scale. So remove them from the process, once and for all.
Now the hue and cry from some fraternity members is that if you take away intake from college members, college chapters will die. Or that if you just let fraternity members pledge in the open, then they'll be fine. They say this with the unsaid thought that the only reason some people join fraternities is to go through pledging and then have the opportunity to pledge other people. Pledging becomes the end and not the means to fraternity membership.
In order to prevent the deaths of more George Desdunes and Donnie Wades, the national organizations of fraternities and sororities are going to have to realize that truly radical measures are needed, not policies that nibble around the edges. Otherwise, Andre's son will have truly died in vain.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.