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EPISODE 4

The Blame Game

By Sara Ganim

Misconduct inside the walls of fraternity houses is one of the sadly persistent stories at universities across the country. 

Every year, stories are written about senseless deaths, rarely with the hope of change on the horizon.

In the last few years, high profile hazing deaths — Tim Piazza at Penn State, Max Gruver at Louisiana State, and Noah Domingo at University of California-Irvine — have made for damning headlines. 

But confronting this problem is complex – a web of secrecy, pride, privacy and faulty structures. The fact is, there is no mechanism in the United States to force universities or fraternity organizations to record and make public instances of fraternity misconduct. Like many of the topics we cover in this season of Why Don’t We Know, this is a data desert. There is no way for parents and students to do their due diligence and shop smart. 

Our year-long investigation found the publicly available information is woefully incomplete. And so what typically happens, is that no one sees that a problem is brewing, until it bubbles up and spills over the edge – a lesson learned in the most painful and tragic way for Daphne Beletsis, whose son died in 2018 at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“He was very exuberant, very athletic, always had a lot of friends,” she said. “UC Santa Cruz is a very rural campus. I think it felt kind of isolating, and he did not have all of the social life he would have hoped. He had friends in the dorm who did pledge their freshman year and was going to live his sophomore year with some guys that were in the fraternity, and I just think he wanted– it looked appealing to him.”

‘I don’t know is an intelligent answer’

Alex Beletsis had just turned 20 when a crossover party for his fraternity Theta Chi was held at an off-campus, de facto fraternity house, where many members lived. An investigation later revealed that he was forced to drink alcohol and snort cocaine, and when his behavior became alarming, he was told to go to a bathroom to “calm down.”

He fell two stories from a window and died from his injuries two weeks later. No one knows exactly what happened. “And I may never know that,” his mother said. 

But over the course of the next year, Daphne Beletsis used open records to conduct her own investigation, and found that – like many of these horrifying instances across the country – there had been disciplinary problems at this chapter of Theta Chi prior to her son’s death.

In fact, paramedics had been called to that house seven times already that year, and the fraternity was coming off two years of discipline for alcohol-related misconduct.

According to the university’s internal investigation, the chapter had long-standing rituals in place, designed to break down and haze pledges, and those included vulgar slurs, physical hazing, alcohol hazing and forced drug abuse.

After the fall, the university investigation found the fraternity quickly tried to keep details of the members’ actions under wraps. Members posted a warning to their private Facebook group saying, “Keep your f—ing mouth shut about the entire situation.” And they held an immediate, mandatory in-person meeting, where they documented what was said in the formal meeting minutes. Statements like, “Crucial not to provide information,” “The university does not have much information,” “’I don’t know’ is an intelligent answer” and “We are being supported by our nationals.”

There is evidence that they were, in fact, being supported by their nationals. It later came out that Theta Chi’s national president quickly contacted the university to declare that Alex Beletsis’ death was not connected to a chapter event, which turned out not to be true.

But the details of that report were kept secret. Still today, no member of the public has ever seen the full findings – not even Daphne Beletsis. And the only reason we know anything at all is because she hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit. Before that, you would not be able to find any of those details – about the hazing, the prior discipline or the attempted cover-up by the fraternity. 

In fact, when we first learned about Alex Beletsis – about a year and a half after his death – we Googled his name and couldn’t find a single thing about how he died or that it was related to hazing. There was zero mention of it on the internet. 

It seemed remarkable that with an almost omnipresent internet, a college student could die and there would be no trace of it. Even though the university conducted a 10-month investigation and eventually banned Theta Chi, the university never publicly acknowledged what it found in its report – that Alex Beletsis died because of hazing. The whole thing was pretty hush-hush. 

“It’s tragedy and sadness heaped on tragedy and sadness,” said Beletsis family attorney Doug Fierberg. He’s been working on cases like this exclusively for more than 30 years, so he’s used to battling concealment. But this cover-up was particularly effective, he told us.

“The family did not know that his death was being investigated by the university and did not know until they saw a copy of a report several months later that the investigative findings were absolutely damning and indicated that Alex died as a result of severe hazing and severe misconduct,” Fierberg said. “And if you check even the public record now, it’s very difficult to find any information linking the fraternity, the fraternity brothers to Alex’s death.”

Here’s how the information finally came out: After Alex was taken off life support, Daphne’s focus shifted from a bedside vigil to a fervent search for answers. She filed something called a Freedom of Information Act request to try to get more information. A freedom of information request, by law, gives the public the right to certain documents at public institutions – like a public university. In this case: UC Santa Cruz.

“I sent requests asking for records reflecting discipline interactions with this particular fraternity,” she said. “And I sent them in October, and I got the first set of records at the very end of March, so almost six months.”

This is one of the realities of open records laws. In theory, these laws should make documents like this public and force transparency. But, in reality, there are many tactics institutions can use to keep things from getting out. And delays are one of them.

“And it was only 57 pages. I mean, it wasn’t like it was voluminous, and it was only a partial response,” Beletsis said. “So it took six months to get records, which in hindsight, if you want to sue a public entity, which the University of California is, you have a six month claims statute of limitations. So it’s very convenient for them that I had no information about the prior discipline of Theta Chi until that timeframe had run. And when those records came in, they reflected a serious discipline in 2015 and 2016. 2015 Theta Chi had one year of disciplinary probation, and in 2016 they had one year of suspension.

“I didn’t know that. And the most heartbreaking thing in these records was a March 24, 2016, email from a UC Santa Cruz administrator in the context of discussing this discipline, and she said, “I’m concerned there are no consequences for Theta Chi not completing any of the requirements of their probation. I’m particularly concerned that this is the chapter that has an unresolved complaint involving the possible administration of drugs. Is the university being negligent by allowing this chapter to move forward?”

The violations involved alcohol and an underage kid needing an ambulance from a fraternity party.

So, the answer was a resounding yes, it was a bad fraternity engaged in scary conduct and yes, it was heartbreaking to see that Santa Cruz knew and had an opportunity to take action that would have changed. Alex would probably still be here if that fraternity had been closed down like it should have been.”

Half of public universities choose secrecy

UC Santa Cruz is far from the only university that has been accused of being too secretive with information about discipline at Greek organizations. In fact, our 10-month quest for these disciplinary records at major public universities across the country shows that most schools are not making prior discipline public, even though they have the information.

Most commonly, if you go searching online, what you’ll see are statistics: the average GPA is higher than the non-Greek student GPA, millions raised for charity each year, hundreds of thousands of hours of community service. Rarely will you find much else. 

And even if you request records of discipline, like Daphne Beletsis did, at many of these institutions, you still won’t get the information without paying a pretty hefty fee. Here’s what happened when we asked nearly 80 different public universities across the country for records of discipline of Greek organizations: (Jess)

  • 30% provided the disciplinary records, when we asked but told us that it’s not readily available online for students and parents and the public to see.
  • 25% of schools that said absolutely nothing in response to our request. They ignored us completely.
  • 12% told us they had no information to share. Follow-up emails revealed most of them are not tracking it at all.
  • Another 25% of universities said they have this information and they’d be happy to hand it over, as long as we pay for it. Some schools asked for a few hundred dollars; some asked for thousands of dollars to deliver this information. The biggest bill we got was from the University of Maryland, which asked for $6,500. (We asked them why and the response was that officials felt they calculated a fee that was in compliance with state law.)

In total, our research found that 55% of universities have this information readily available but choose not to make it easily available online.

I think the issue is people don’t want to create that kind of record because that kind of record easily available would be used against an institution in a lawsuit,” said Walter Kimbrough. He’s the current president of Dillard University in New Orleans, but he’s also worn a bunch of hats in the fraternity world, including Greek life coordinator, consultant, expert witness and member of the national board of directors for his own fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

“So I’ve seen it as a campus person, as an expert witness, as a person working for national groups with commission. So, I think I’ve pretty much seen all the different angles,” he said. 

In fact, Kimbrough himself has tried to get some of this same information we tried to get.

“We asked for similar kinds of data. I want to see all of your hazing cases over the last 10 years and nobody has that. So, they’ll give you a ton of stuff that you have to try to go through or they slow walk that to try to get some of that information for you. But people don’t want to keep that kind of information.”

The data we collected really backs that up. Of the 80 schools we asked, only six of them have the information ready, online and available to look at.

One of those schools is Clemson University, where a student named Tucker Hipps died in 2014. Hipps’ parents learned that there were an unprecedented number of misconduct violations in the weeks leading up to his death and then pushed for a new state law that would force these violations to go up in real-time. It’s called the Tucker Hipps Transparency Act, and it says that all universities in the state of South Carolina must provide a public report of misconduct violations at Greek letter organizations.

Last summer when it became officially a permanent law within South Carolina, it was one of the first states to make it a law to post organizational conduct,” said Gary Wiser, Clemson’s director of fraternity and sorority life. “Whatever it takes for people to make an informed decision about the organization that they want to join, that is not a bad thing.”

That said, there are still some huge gaps of information. For example, if you look at Clemson’s disciplinary report online, and you go to the date that Tucker Hipps died, all you will see on that date is that the fraternity “engaged in activities that endangered the safety and health of new members.” You wouldn’t know that someone actually died during those activities.

‘No responsive records’

In response to our records request for all disciplinary records at Greek letter organizations, The University of California, Santa Cruz, the school where Alex Beletsis died, shared only one document: The redacted investigative report about his death. For other organizations, the university said “no records exist.”

When we followed up, asking for more records, a university spokesman said “When a campus organization violates our student code of conduct, we generally seek to provide educational sanctions that support the further education and development of our students and that are appropriate for the violation.”

The records they did share are also not available online. And our request for them took eight months to process – a timeline that certainly would not be helpful for a parent or student making a decision about what organization to join. Daphne Beletsis only found out after her son died that his fraternity had a history of prior discipline. 

I checked the UC Santa Cruz Greek life website to see what information they have for prospective Greek students. It’s a simple page, last updated in July 2018, just a few weeks after Alex Beletsis died.

It says: “Why Go Greek?” And then:

  • Greek-Letter Organizations promote high academic achievement.
  • Greek-Letter Organizations strengthen leadership skills.
  • Greek-Letter Organizations encourage service.

Then it says: “But what about hazing?” Then:

“Once a common tradition, hazing has been banned by all national, local, and international fraternal organizations and institutions of higher education. The University of California, Santa Cruz strictly enforces this policy, and organizations found in violation are subject to immediate suspension of campus recognition and privileges, as well as negative legal repercussions.”

That might be partly true. UC Santa Cruz did kick Theta Chi out after concluding its super-secret 10-month investigation. But evidence of all that other stuff?

“I did a follow-up record request to ask for evidence of these values that they put on the student organization website,” Daphne Beletsis said. “Show me the philanthropy, the good works, the community service, and I got nothing. None of that’s going on.” 

We asked UC Santa Cruz for a response to our story, and they did address some of the issues we’ve raised. 

A spokesman wrote in an email that the university never publicly linked Alex Beletsis’s death to the dismissal of the fraternity out of respect for the privacy of the family. He also said that the delay in communicating with Daphne Beletsis was due to the active investigation.

As for why it took eight months to turn over records, he said they try to respond to requests in a timely manner. 

The gender gap

The year before Alex died, another 18-year-old fraternity pledge died, this time at Louisiana State University. Max Gruver had been put through a Phi Delta Theta fraternity hazing ritual called “Bible Study,” where pledges had to chug alcohol if they gave the wrong answer to trivia questions. 

Gruver’s blood alcohol level was almost .5, it’s a fatal dose for most people. This was also attorney Doug Fierberg’s case, and it’s important to mention because of what Fierberg uncovered at LSU – once again thanks to open records requests.

“Where the instances of fraternity hazing and often in dangerous circumstances were extremely frequent at the university, but the university’s response to those incidents was, at best, lax and, most accurately, unserious, not significant, irrelevant,” Fierberg said. “And students were given a pat on the back and nothing serious happened to them. And the converse was true for sororities, where there were certain incidents that were by no means life-threatening, but yet they were responded to by LSU with the harshest means necessary.”

Why?

“There’s a lot of individuals that believe that boys will be boys,” he said. “And everything that’s good in a male world is not to be completely fooled around with. And fraternities have a very strong influence at certain campuses. They have very active alumni, they support the school programs actively and stay in close contact with the university, contribute to the university and are regularly cheerleaders for the university long after they’ve left.”

As alumni, Greeks give back approximately 75 percent of all money that is donated to universities, which is a hugely significant number.

“Big institutions don’t want to deal with it because you’re starting to deal with a very influential and powerful alumni base that doesn’t want their chapter to be gone for three to five years because something happens,” Kimbrough said. “And I know for a fact that’s held over the head of people so, you’re juggling a lot of different constituencies.”

Structural faults

When Kimbrough said that, I immediately thought of a man named David Easlick. I first met Easlick in 2015 when a female student died after a party at the Rutgers University DKE frat house. I was a CNN correspondent and I talked to Easlick about the fraternity, which he had been the national president of for about 25 years. 

DKE is probably best known for having six United States presidents as members. But in 1998, Easlick got a call in the middle of the night that a pledge at the University of Washington named John LaDuca had hanged himself from a sprinkler pipe in his bedroom after a weeklong initiation ceremony called “Hell Seek.”

And it was totally covered up by the undergraduates and the alumni that he’d been hazed within an inch of his life,” Easlick said. “And he’d been hazed by a Canadian member of our board who was a lawyer who was also later arrested for child abuse and he had planned the entire initiation. And this thing was totally covered up from me.”

Easlick says that it was a turning point for him, and he wanted to implement change that would make sure it would never happen again. 

“We would bring up at every convention, you know, who was the person who had the most impact on the fraternity ever,” he said. “People would say various presidents of the United States and stuff. And I would say, no, it was John LaDuca.”

But his one-man crusade was short-lived.

“I went to a birthday party for the chairman of our foundation and I went inside and they asked me to go outside and a bunch of drunks basically who were on a board of directors said, “You’re fired and go home. And that was, that was the end of me.

“The problem with alumni members of the fraternities is basically: They were all hazed, and they do remember all that hazing, and it’s now seen through a backward lens that, ‘Oh, wasn’t that fun?’ Although it was really not fun,” Easlisk said. 

Easlick now works as an expert witness for fraternity misconduct that end up in court. But the more I’ve watched these cases meander through the justice system, the more I’ve realized that the nature and relationship between the national fraternities, local chapters and universities is a complicated legal entanglement.

“It does make it complicated. And it has many more layers than that. So universities, while they recognize fraternities, they seek to distance themselves from the harm they cause in recognition agreements or in other principles of law,” Fierberg said. “And then you have national fraternities that have housing corporations, that own the real estate that the chapter may operate out of. You have the chapter…it’s engineered in this way to be a so-called separate legal entity. So, there are a lot of roadblocks that govern how the law is going to respond to a particular incident and any given weekend. And from our perspective, the fraternities have managed it and engineered it this way, in part to reduce the potential liability.”

So when you see local chapter shut down after misconduct – often that’s not entirely honorable. It’s an attempt to shield from litigation.

“The national fraternity can come in afterwards and with the wave of a wand, make it disappear and then argue that the thing that may have been involved in causing this injury and death is no longer viable and around to be sued or sue,” Fierberg said. “And all of that from a puppeteer perspective is controlled by the national fraternity, from the outset as to how the local chapter is set up.”

In a lot of cases, this has worked to minimize liability. Daphne Beletsis wants to change that.

“The Beletsis case is the first case in this country ever to go after the actual engineered structure of the fraternity system from the way a national is incorporated to the manner in which it oversees and incorporates housing corporations, and then all the way down to the chapter level,” Fierberg said. “These are false differences and that each one of these organizations is part of the same organization and an alter ego of the fraternity organization in general. And that the law should not recognize distinct differences between these three entities because to do so only fraudulently protects the organization itself. And in the Beletsis lawsuit, we argue that all of that is a sham.”

The strength of privacy

There is a federal privacy law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act – commonly, it’s known as FERPA – which fiver universities cited as the reason they would not share records with us. FERPA is chaotic in nature, meaning that often its interpreted in different ways by different schools. This is one of those examples. 

FERPA is the reason that Daphne Beletsis still hasn’t seen the entirety of the investigative report into what happened to her son. According to UC Santa Cruz, the privacy interest of the people involved in their son’s death outweighs her interest in knowing what the university found about how her son died. 

This is not that uncommon. Even in states where disciplinary information is required to be provided by law, names are still redacted.

“I feel like hazing laws in particular, within the states, need to go after the individuals more,” said Gary Wiser, the director of fraternity and sorority life at Clemson. “Because if the individuals are not held accountable and they’re still allowed to be students at the university, I don’t really feel like that goes far enough. You can suspend a fraternity or sorority or any type of student organization from a campus, but … If the individuals that were involved in the incident aren’t held accountable, then they’re still members of a campus community. We need to do a better job at holding the individuals accountable.”

It is possible that the people responsible for harmful behavior at fraternities are seeing disciplinary charges for that conduct. But it’s also possible that they’re not. It’s not a stretch to assume that frequently that punishment is absorbed by the fraternity itself. The reality is that we will never know, because colleges have constructed this off-the-books secret justice system that leaves behind very little paper trail. And since the majority of fraternity members in the United States are white, the lack of individual accountability highlights racial disparities that are seldom discussed.  

It also begs the question of “why?” If the mission is to keep these organizations safe, why aren’t the national chapters posting misconduct? Wouldn’t that help all the people who are pledging for the right reasons make better decisions?

I posed this question to Jud Horras, the president of the North American Interfraternity Council. Jud declined to do an interview with us to talk about the data that we collected. In an email, his spokesperson told me that Horras supports a bill that would force universities to make all of these misconduct records public. It’s called the “End All Hazing Act.” But it’s been stalled in a congressional committee for more than a year. 

So I asked him, in an email, why not instead force the Greek letter organizations to post this information? After all, these are private organizations, not bound by privacy laws like FERPA.

His answer is that hazing, and other misconduct, are campus-wide issues that extend beyond fraternities —  to athletics, marching bands, and other student groups. And so he believes this bill would be the best resource for parents and students. 

David Easlick, the former president of DKE does not agree.

“The schools don’t necessarily have the information and the fraternities do,” Easlick said. “The fraternities can tell you everything that you want to know. You want a national perspective. You want somebody who’s going to join SAE or DKE or whatever, they’d like know what’s the national reputation? Have they done anything to combat hazing? Have they had any significant hazing cases? And those records are totally available because the two insurance companies that insure the fraternities are both owned by the national fraternities. One is owned by seven national fraternities.

“And then the other one is the fraternity risk management trust. And that’s owned by 37 fraternities and that has millions of dollars in it. But they keep track of every incident and they keep the ones that don’t get any attention and the ones that maybe don’t even get to the school. … And so they have 100% of this information available, it could be disclosed, it could be published, and it could be out there. But, of course, I don’t think, as an insurance company, they’re going to do it, and then I know as a national, they don’t want it.”

‘It’s very frustrating’

The focus of this season of Why Don’t We Know is secrecy in education, and as you listen, you are going to hear us exploring a lot of different topics that relate back to reasons why we can’t get certain information. This issue, of Greek organization misconduct, touches on so many of those topics. 

It touches on the faulty structures, weak laws, cultural problems, a lack of data, and also, something else that we sadly see repeating throughout the season: a lack willingness to make meaningful progress.

“These are public institutions that have a serious health problem on their campus,” Fierberg said. “One of the single strongest predictors of binge drinking is fraternity membership. And the fact that with so many students hurt or killed or sexually assaulted in this system, the idea that there would be hurdles to getting access to the accurate information about those risks is on some level criminal or gross neglect because the universities haven’t focused on it, or they’ve decided that it’s not important enough.

“Then you’ve got people looking at policy changes that are only half informed or one-third informed, or certainly not fully informed. It is, in fact, true that fraternities are extremely dangerous on college campuses around the country, and that the public would not have accurate information about that is a crime shame after this many decades of kids dying and getting hurt and sexually assaulted. The universities don’t want to have these types of blemishes on their record with respect to the alcohol drug misuse and the Greek system. But again, these are conscious choices to keep the public in the dark.”

Imagine losing a kid and then running into these brick walls while you’re just trying to figure out what happened. 

“Well, I think, you’re right, you’re hitting the nail on the head because any parent that loses a child is fairly desperate to understand why and how that happened. And so to be met, both with fraternity, not only stonewalling, but blatant dishonesty, lack of cooperation but also radio silence from the university. You know, it is very frustrating,” Daphne Beletsis said. “I don’t know, is it just so valuable to be able to advertise that you have a Greek system? Is that a draw for kids that you put up with this kind of risky behavior? I frankly, I was shocked, you know, I was shocked by what I read that it would be going on in this day and age with this age kids. Extreme, racist, sexist, homophobic taunts in the hazing process. Just drunk drinking to a stupor. Just stuff I guess, like I said, I was too naive.

“I think for the fraternity to get away with this kind of conduct is morally repugnant. We’re just willing to lose young people every year for what? The fraternity sits back and collects $400 a quarter per member and takes no steps to make sure that the fraternity is operating in a safe way? So my goal is really simple. The alternative doing nothing was a [inaudible 00:33:00] to me. I would like to see the fraternity change. I’d like to see fraternity culture change, and that’s my goal.”

Additional reporting by Jessica Curbelo and Tori Whidden