'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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there