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Across the Country, Fraternity Hazing Rituals Are Still Killing Young Men

Male college students keep dying every year during pledge season — and people keep looking for piecemeal answers, hoping the system can be reformed. But is this about ‘bad apples,’ or a culture of violence and neglect as machismo?

Stone Foltz never expected fatal harm when his brothers at Bowling Green State University’s Pi Kappa Alpha told him to attend a mandatory frat event on the evening of March 4, 2021. But when he showed up to the off-campus house, Foltz realized the gambit immediately: The “little brothers,” or new inductees, were being pressured to polish off a bottle of the “family drink.” In his case, it was a liter-sized bottle of Evan Williams bourbon

Foltz had talked to his parents on the phone just moments before he showed up at the fraternity’s house, telling them that he was nervous to go through with a drinking ritual. “Then don’t,” his mother said. 

But with the bottle in hand, Foltz just tried to get it over with, sucking down the entire fifth of alcohol in under 20 minutes. At some point, he vomited heavily and struggled to stand up. Noticing this, three PKA brothers led Foltz to a car and drove him to his apartment. The trio hung around for a short period but ultimately left him on the couch. 

Around 10:30 p.m., Foltz’s roommate returned home and noticed the slumped body on the couch. He called three other friends, who all grew concerned about Foltz’s erratic breathing. At 11:23 p.m., they called 911 and began CPR in response to Foltz turning blue. Paramedics responded in minutes, but it was too late: Foltz was put on life support and died within two days. 

Just seven months later, a similar scene unfolded some 600 miles away. Danny Santulli was a freshman pledge for the University of Missouri’s Phi Gamma Delta house. After weeks of being forced into sleep deprivation and dumb, physical stunts, Santulli was ready to be anointed into the group — and the last big hurdle was a ritual night of drinking on October 19th. 

When he arrived at the house, Santulli was given a large bottle of vodka and told to finish it as his “pledge dad,” an older fraternity brother, cheered him on. At one point, the 19-year-old consumed beer through a funnel. Surveillance cameras from inside the house captured the scene as Santulli and the other pledges became increasingly drunk. 

At around 10:30 p.m., Santulli swayed and collapsed to the ground. A few brothers picked him up, propped Santulli up on the couch and left. He stayed there for the next hour and a half, at which point he slumped over and fell to the ground. As it turned out, he was having a massive cardiac attack. His blood alcohol level was six times the legal amount. No one was around to help, and although Santulli survived, the incident left him blind, paralyzed and unable to communicate. 

Then, a month later, another young man died from alcohol-related causes at a ritual drinking event for pledges: Phat Nguyen, a 21-year-old student at Michigan State University who was found unconscious, reeking of urine and and wearing nothing but shorts in the dirty basement of Pi Alpha Phi at 2 a.m. on November 20th. Three other pledges found next to him were hospitalized, but Nguyen never took another breath. 

All three of these cases hit milestones last month: Ryan Delanty and Thomas Shultz of Phi Gamma Delta were charged with felony hazing under Missouri law, with Shultz receiving another count for felony tampering of physical evidence. Five of eight indicted men were convicted on charges related to the death of Foltz, with three of them receiving jail sentences of up to 28 days. And the leaders of Pi Alpha Phi, comprising “pledge master” Ethan Cao, “pledge dad” Andrew Nguyen and frat president Hoang Pham, now face 15 years of jail time and a $10,000 fine under Michigan’s anti-hazing laws.

There have been more than 50 hazing-related deaths, and far more uncounted injuries, since 2000. The cause of death ranges from alcohol poisoning to head injury to heatstroke, and each death has led to mea culpas from the young peers of the departed, national fraternity organizations and universities alike. Nonetheless, young men keep dying every year while in the embrace of a frat — and people keep looking for answers, hoping the system can be reformed.

Beyond indictments, there are signs that 2022 is going to be a repeat: In June, arrest warrants went out for 46 men from the University of New Hampshire, all of whom belong to Sigma Alpha Epsilon. No details about the actual crime have been released, although they are all charged with misdemeanor hazing. And Louisiana State University was forced to suspend Sigma Alpha Epsilon in March after finding evidence of coercion, kidnapping and assault that took place in October 2020. The action came after reports that the chapter had been participating in banned “Hell Week” activities for years. 

So why does it keep happening? Alcohol is the most common factor to blame: deadly toxicity disguised as a good time for all, and accepted eagerly by 18-year-olds tasting free booze for the first time. Add it to the cultish, hyped-up atmosphere of a frat event, and it’s easy to see a fatal situation unfold. 

But arguably, it’s not alcohol that killed Foltz, Santulli or Nguyen, but rather neglect in moments when medical care could have saved a life. And beyond alcohol, we can see a culture of violence in college hazing, driven by a philosophy that you should earn your manhood and brotherhood through trial by fire. It’s why we’ve seen male pledges pushing themselves to the breaking point and dying in poorly run boxing fights. It’s what explains how a group of so-called brothers would think physically brutalizing a new member, then neglecting an obvious head injury in the aftermath, is acceptable behavior. 

Regardless of what ends up on the autopsy report, these terrible deaths have something in common: People are pressured to accept and dole out cruelty and excess, consenting to hazing under the gaslight-y guise of camaraderie. If that sounds a little like torture, maybe that’s because it is  — but this has been happening for a long time. Frats have codified the methods by which young men learn to fetishize the masochistic as a hyper-macho trait. New members are indoctrinated into believing the power of these methods to bind men together and bond them for life. They then grow into upperclassmen, and are handed positions of power and expectations to uphold “tradition,” by any means necessary. 

This creates cycles of violence and victimhood, with the former being celebrated and the latter obscured. Indeed, it’s hard to find examples of frat hazing incidents gone wrong that don’t have signs of a coverup, whether it’s brothers rushing to delete evidence of a drunken ritual or a national organization using money to make an ugly story disappear. Those who speak out against these sins risk being thrown out of the frat and ostracized, as well as ignored by the university. 

In so many ways, frat deaths keep proving that there is too much money, legacy and pride for transparency to be a priority in Greek systems. National frat organizations can pull charters and shut down houses, but it’s a “bad apples” approach to regulation that is merely reactive to tragedy and disguises growing toxicities in the meantime. Despite efforts by universities and frats themselves to reform, what remains is largely an underground world of abuse obscured as tradition, just served with a wink and a nod. 

Although most states have anti-hazing laws, there’s massive variance in how the courts define hazing and punish it. And even when universities try to reform, their impact is limited: As the University of Missouri found out in 2019, its rules on alcohol access and other hazing-related behaviors lacked jurisdiction in the privately owned mansions that house Greek groups off-campus. 

That has meant students are de-facto left to regulate themselves, which is tough in an environment when young people barely understand that something can be hazing even if there’s no literal coercion. In the aftermath of the death of Sam Martinez in 2019, an extensive investigation found many of his fraternity brothers and fellow pledges insisted that no hazing had occurred, despite obvious evidence of trauma and harm, merely because everyone had “consented.” 

“Certain guys would get broken down, and other guys wouldn’t,” one pledge observed. “I’ve seen kids cry in my pledge class and go up into their rooms and just stay in their room and not come out. I’ve just seen kids broken down before, for sure.”

Given these power structures and blind spots at play, it’s no wonder that frats have struggled with not just hazing, but sexual violence and aggressive racism in their 150 years of existence. And in the aftermath of tragedy, survivors and their loved ones are left scrambling for recourse in a society primed to forget about what happened. For some, there’s little left to do but make tearful public statements and advocate for some measure of reform. Some resort to lawsuits, as the Foltzes have done. But none of it changes the deaths.

As for the perpetrators, their punishments range from probation to multiple years behind bars — but it’s a lose-lose situation, regardless. Nobody joins a frat to die alone in a dank basement, struggling to breathe as a party rages on elsewhere. And nobody joins a frat to one day find themselves standing in a glaringly bright courtroom, realizing they’re culpable in another man’s death. 

Accidents, even the most avoidable ones, thrive in uncontrolled conditions. We keep pretending like there are bans and oversight that can reform frat hazing. All the while, it keeps plucking a few young lives every year.