'It reminded me of Guantanamo Bay. It was like torture': Inside America’s deadliest fraternity

The brutality of initiation ceremonies into ‘Greek frat houses’ has come to light after some of the abused students broke their silence. John Hechinger and David Glovin report on behaviour likened to torture at Guantanamo Bay

On a chilly March night, Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers ordered Justin Stuart to recite the fraternity’s creed.

“The true gentleman,” said the 19-year-old freshman, shivering in the back yard, “is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies.”

It wasn’t easy to get the words out. Stuart was naked, except for his underwear, and standing in a trash can filled waist-deep with ice. Fraternity members sprayed him with a hose and poured buckets of water over his head. Convinced that SAE would bring him social success in college and then a Wall Street job, the lanky recruit from suburban Maryland endured the abuse.

During an eight-week initiation in 2012, SAE “brothers” at Salisbury University in Maryland beat Stuart with a paddle, forced pledges to drink until they almost passed out and dressed them in women’s clothing and nappies, Stuart said. Fraternity members confined recruits for as long as nine hours in a dark basement without food, water or a bathroom, while blasting the same German rock song at ear-splitting volume, according to Stuart, the testimony of another former pledge and the findings of the university’s disciplinary board.

“It honestly reminded me of Guantanamo Bay,” Stuart said. “It was almost like torture.”

Defying the fraternity code of secrecy, Stuart offered a rare first-person account of hazing – the name given to the often violent initiation ceremonies – at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest and best-known fraternities in the US; and the deadliest. His ordeal prompted Salisbury University to suspend the chapter through the spring of 2014. Stuart’s story and Salisbury’s investigation and findings have never been made public before now.

The university’s disciplinary board determined that the facts supported Stuart’s account and that the chapter violated Salisbury policies on alcohol, hazing, and threats or acts of violence, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg News under an open-records request.

The Salisbury episode also shows how difficult it is for colleges to prevent hazing, and the extent to which alumni protect their fraternities. Investment executive J Michael Scarborough, a founder of Salisbury’s SAE chapter, was so upset over its suspension that he withdrew a $2m (£1.2m) donation to the university.

Risking alumni wrath, universities have disciplined more than 100 Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters since 2007, according to a list published on the organisation’s website because of a legal settlement.

Colleges suspended or closed at least 15 SAE chapters in the past three years. SAE has had nine deaths related to drinking, drugs and hazing since 2006, more than any other Greek organisation, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.

In a statement, SAE’s national fraternity organisation said it has “zero tolerance for hazing”. Frank Ginocchio, SAE’s general counsel, said the students’ deaths nationwide result from “a perfect storm”, rather than shortcomings in oversight.

There have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005, according to Bloomberg’s data. This month, a freshman pledging Pi Delta Psi at New York City’s Baruch College died after being repeatedly tackled in an initiation in the Pocono Mountains.

Fraternities have blocked efforts by legislators and academic leaders to curb hazing. Their political action committee, known as FratPAC, convinced Frederica Wilson, a US Representative from Florida, not to introduce an anti-hazing Bill in Congress.

Fraternity alumni, including major donors to universities, often oppose restrictions on Greek life. After the president and trustees of Trinity College in Hartford proposed making fraternities co-educational, Greek alumni withheld donations to the school.

Justin Stuart didn’t know about SAE’s disciplinary record when he arrived at Salisbury in 2011, he said.

Even after all the punishment, leaving the brotherhood wasn’t easy. When he missed events, members called, texted and visited his room, according to a campus police report.

In June, the fraternity was investigated, albeit briefly, by city police department. Two pledges denied that hazing took place.

When Stuart returned for his sophomore year, the university pressed forward with its own investigation. Stuart met the university’s disciplinary board, which includes faculty and student representatives.

The board determined in October that the evidence supported Stuart’s allegations. Among “relevant facts” it established were that pledges were “made to get into a bin of ice and required to recite organisational information”, and they were “kept in a basement on several occasions”, blindfolded, yelled at and “made to drink”.

One board member told fraternity leaders at the hearing that their protests of innocence rang hollow.

“What you said sounds like Disney Channel, when what I’m thinking [is] more like Quentin Tarantino,” the member said, according to Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s later appeal.

“Not all of your members are True Gentlemen,” another board member said, echoing the fraternity’s creed. The SAE chapter appealed against the findings, complaining that members weren’t allowed to have lawyers at the hearing.

In November 2012, the university denied the appeal and suspended SAE through the spring of 2014, removing its recognition as a student organisation and barring it from campus. It will then be on probation for another year. A handful of students were also disciplined.

Stuart, now 21 and a junior, keeps to himself at the University of Maryland. He is living at home and commuting to campus, and doesn’t go out much on weekends.

As he drives by Greek houses on his way to school, he ponders what colleges should do about fraternities. They must step up oversight, restrict alcohol, and hold fraternities and members accountable for misbehaviour, he said.

Even now, he has trouble trusting other students, and has flashbacks to his experience as an SAE pledge. “I have dreams of the basement sometimes,” he said. “I hear the yelling. It sounds like they’re about to attack me. Then I wake up from my nightmare.”

© Bloomberg

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