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RENÉE GRAHAM

Suspending fraternities isn’t enough. Colleges should ban them

Joe Rondone/Tallahassee Democrat via AP

Florida State University’s Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house.

By Globe Columnist 

To every college-bound teenager in my life, I always impart the same advice: “Don’t do anything your parents will first hear about from a police officer in the middle of the night.”

I’m especially emphatic with those eager to join a fraternity or sorority. They’re thinking about parties, camaraderie, and memories to last a lifetime. Meanwhile, I’m envisioning hazing rituals that could hurt, maim, or kill them.

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It has been a lethal year for the Greek system at several colleges and universities. At Florida State University, the recent death of a fraternity pledge at a party has prompted the school’s president to indefinitely suspend its fraternities and sororities.

“For this suspension to end, there will need to be a new normal for Greek life on campus,” FSU president John Thrasher said. He wants to “send a message that we’ve got a serious problem and we need to deal with it, and they’re part of the solution.”

Here’s a better solution: permanently ban fraternities and sororities at all colleges and universities.

From hazing deaths to racist parties, fraternities and sororities are incubators of behavior ranging from objectionable to criminal. This year, three young men pledging fraternities at Florida State, Penn State, and Louisiana State have died, and not just from severe alcohol intoxication or injuries sustained while drunk. They are also victims of the depraved indifference of those they wanted to call their brothers.

At Penn State, 12 hours passed before anyone at a frat house called 911 for Timothy Piazza, who, while drunk, stumbled down a flight of stairs. He died two days later. At LSU, Maxwell Gruver lay on a couch for nine hours, dying from alcohol-induced asphyxiation. In both cases, students face criminal charges. Andrew Coffey died at a campus fraternity party at FSU; authorities are still trying to determine his cause of death.

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“This is the result of a feeling of entitlement, flagrant disobedience of the law and disregard for moral values that was then exacerbated by egregious acts of self-preservation,” said Jim Piazza, father of the dead Penn State student. “Again, this did not have to happen.”

Yet it continues to happen.

Thrasher says his school’s Greek system will be suspended until “a new normal” is established. The problem is that suspensions are rarely more than public gestures that allow school officials to look as if they’re actually doing something.

Months after Piazza’s death, Penn State initiated a new set of Greek life guidelines, including certain restrictions on alcohol at social functions. Not everyone got the memo. Last month, the university suspended another fraternity for supplying alcohol to minors. It’s the 10th Penn State fraternity currently under suspension.

Eric Barron, Penn State’s president, claims he wants to “preserve what is good and valuable” about fraternities and sororities. If there was anything good and valuable about these organizations, it’s been squeezed out by privileged sociopaths intent on living by their own corrupt and dangerous rules. Fraternities foster a culture of violence and sexual misconduct. Sororities push their pledges to give men lap dances, simulate sex acts, and guzzle alcohol.

Each year, organizations are called out for racist actions, such as the Baylor University frat suspended in May for its Cinco de Mayo party where some attendees wore brown face and chanted “build that wall.”

Despite bad press, universities have reasons to sustain these groups. They keep deep-pocketed donors, especially those who remain active members, happy and writing big checks. Even for those nonmembers, frat and sorority parties can be a center of social life on campus, a big draw to potential students. Thousands also live in frat and sorority houses, easing a burden for institutions struggling to find shelter for its students. Also, those so inclined often cite community service activities as a purpose for Greek life.

Still, such justifications pale in comparison with the threat fraternities and sororities pose to student safety. Nothing these organizations offer counterbalances the harm caused by their continued existence, which exposes the impotence of school officials who respond tepidly to deviant actions that can and do turn deadly.

Living in Boston, it’s impossible to avoid each year’s swarm of new and returning college students. When I look at their beaming, teary parents, I can’t help but wonder if any of them will have their child, who only wanted to join a fraternity or sorority, return home in a box.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.