History of Hazing in U.S. Fraternity System and Current Issues

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Student groups and organizations have been a core part of the collegiate experience since the early days of higher education in the United States. In the challenging academic environment of college, students found ways to come together through dining clubs, debate clubs, literary societies and other gatherings. Fraternities were born out of the tradition of these student groups and to this day provide development and leadership opportunities for its members. However, hazing and other vile behaviors adopted by fraternity men over time have overshadowed many of the positive outcomes the organizations initially offered. The autonomous nature of these Greek organizations has historically led to friction between Greek members and college administrators. Higher education professionals still face many challenges when working with fraternities and fatal incidents have led to strict policy reforms. Many attempts to cooperate with fraternity organizations have failed to result in outright bans. However, some cases suggest that when properly supported and regulated, Greek organizations could bring positive impacts to campus just like any other student group.

The History of Fraternity Organizations in American Higher Education

In December 1776 at the College of William and Mary, Phi Beta Kappa was founded and became the first fraternal organization in the United States. The organization set precedent for secret collegiate societies named after the Greek-letter initials of a secret motto. The founders of this secret society declared that it was formed with “friendship as its basis and benevolence and literature as its pillars.” Phi Beta Kappa soon expanded to Yale and Harvard and eventually became an influential association of elite upperclassmen with active faculty involvement across several colleges (Flanagan, 2014; Hastings, 1965). As the chapters became larger, the brotherhood and congeniality that had defined the original chapter was eventually replaced with an increased focused on oratory and academic pursuits. This, however, is not indicative of the modern-day fraternity as the system under which Phi Beta Kappa functioned has significantly shifted (Hastings, 1965).

The first general Greek letter fraternity is considered to be the Kappa Alpha Society, established in 1825 at Union College. The dissolution of the College’s military company prompted founder John Hart Hunter and four other members to form a secret literary and social society to fill the “aching void” left by its absence. The organization was formed around fellowship, making the development of friendship and brotherhood their primary purpose (Syrett, 2009). Despite small membership size and fierce faculty and administrative opposition, the Society was secretly popular among students, inspiring the foundation of both Sigma Phi and Delta Phi in the spring and fall of 1827, respectively. Often referred to as “The Union Triad,” these three fraternities became the founders of the modern American fraternity system, and according to Baird (1920), “imitation of them or opposition to them will account for the establishment of nearly all of the general fraternities” (p.6). By the 1850s these secret societies had become an integral aspect of collegiate life, predominantly on New England and mid-Atlantic campuses. In the Midwest and the South, fraternities existed at institutions almost exclusively attended by the wealthy. This meant the majority of fraternity men were seeking future success through academia and professional careers rather than the ministry (Syrett, 2009).

Not long afterward, collegiate activity across American campuses weakened during the Civil War. Fraternities at many colleges and universities were temporarily closed, and in the South, many were suspended altogether. However, the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862 during the War led to the birth of new higher education institutions and increased student enrollment. Post-War, new fraternities were established, most notably at Southern institutions with a prominent military, unsurprising after the culmination of a war (Baird, 1920). The overall growth in the fraternity system is responsible for the characterization of this period as “The Golden Age of Fraternities” (Sanua, 2003).

The “Golden Age” was undoubtedly a time of significant growth for the fraternity system. However, this period is also characterized by incredible discrimination against minority populations, whose enrollment had been steadily increasing since the passage of the Morrill Act. Since its inception, the fraternity system has been unofficially defined by the inclusion of wealthy White Christian students and the exclusion of everyone else. The societies’ secrecy and exclusivity were essential to their prestige and appeal. This prompted the establishment of Phi Kappa Sigma by Catholic students at Brown in 1889 as well as the non-sectarian Pi Lambda Phi and exclusively Jewish Z.B.T. (later Zeta Beta Tau), both by Jewish students at Yale in 1895 and 1898, respectively (Sanua, 2003).

The 1960s brought upon a period of student unrest, prompting dramatic changes in American higher education. Activism, sexual liberation, and drug-use characterized this era and students made every effort to relinquish themselves from the patriarchal control of their college and university administrators. Despite their reputation as elite leaders who frequently ignored authority, fraternity members had become the opposite as “representatives of the very status quo the new activists sought to overthrow” (Flanagan, 2024). With increasing unrest, administrators had effectively lost the ability to control their students. In loco parentis became a thing of the past and campus life was transformed. For the first time in history, fraternities had lost their appeal. The hierarchical social division and exclusiveness characteristic of the system was no longer of interest and membership declined rapidly, with hundreds of chapters closing across the country (Flanagan, 2014; Horowitz, 1986).

Despite the period of liberation that threatened the fraternity system, the release of the movie Animal House in 1978 paved the way for the return of fraternity reign and modern-day Greek life. Prior to this, fraternities had been predominantly focused on social engagements and the prestige of brotherhood. The materialism that characterized the 1980s, however, formed a new culture of excessive partying, drinking, and general debauchery within the chapters’ private houses. Coupled with a lack of supervision, this fostered an environment of violent hazing, fraternity rivals, and dangerous behaviors (Flanagan, 2014; Horowitz, 1986).

Since then, fraternity membership has continued to grow and alumni membership has grown even more. From the very beginning of the emergence of the modern-day fraternity, these organizations were met with faculty and administrative opposition (Flanagan, 2014). Some colleges and universities have since banned Greek organizations altogether while others believe in their merit. Opponents of the fraternity system have continued to argue that membership is detrimental to intellectual development and fosters inappropriate behavior. The validity of these claims varies across campuses and remains at the forefront of Greek-life discussions today (Turk, 2004).

The History of Hazing in White Fraternities

In 1906, the New York Times published a poem written by humorist John Kendrick Bangs entitled, “Hazing—The National Game.” The poem describes, in joyous detail, the various physical tortures pledges endured to prove their worthiness of becoming a fraternity brother.

Hazing, hazing, hazing till they’re hoarse-

See the gallant soldier-boy drink tabasco sauce!

See him take the water cure till he’s fit to bust!

Run his nose into the mud, fill his eyes with dust;

Run and heat the iron hot, brand him good and well–

That’s the way to treat a future Major Generell.

Although Bangs was a satirist, this piece illustrates quite well how fraternity brothers demonstrated and enacted the rules of violent masculinity among themselves and on others. As Nicholas Syrett suggests in his book, “The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities,” hazing has always been a part of white male college life. Even before the founding of the first fraternity in 1776, upperclassmen hazed underclassmen in an attempt to make “men” from the “boys” living without their families for the first time (Syrett, 2009). As young men left home for college, they searched for a community that would support them in their new environments. For many, this support system came packaged up neatly in the form of a fraternity, and, further afield than many students had ever traveled from home, this ready-made family was a treasure they would do anything to keep (Syrett, 2009).

As mentioned, hazing between classes (primarily sophomores and freshman) was common even in the early days of American higher education, but the focus of the harassment shifted from class year to fraternal affiliation by the early 1900s (Syrett, 2009). Post-Civil War fraternity members drew from their ties to the armed forces and military academies to come up with hazing rituals that would prove a pledge’s manliness to his new family. As illustrated in Bangs’ poem, hazing at the turn of the century often took the form of beatings and humiliation. Taking this abuse “like a man” would prove to the brothers that a pledge was no longer a boy, but a fraternity man, ready to perform and defend the aggressive and strict rules of masculinity around campus and beyond.

Fraternal hazing first became a national topic of conversation in 1873, when a Kappa Alpha pledge at Cornell named Mortimer Leggett fell to his death while wearing a blindfold in preparation for a hazing ritual. In a statement to the Washington Star, which was then published in the New York Times, Leggett’s father relayed that his son had, “alluded to the entire absence of ‘hazing’ among the students” (The Death of Mortimer Leggett, 1873). Leggett’s father then continued to praise the upstanding gentlemen who comprised the fraternity: “I am satisfied those friends were young men of exceptionally good character… Such mummeries are foolish and heathenish, and belong to a darker age, but they are common in nearly all the colleges of the world, and are part, probably, of every secret society.” Although Mortimer had informed his father that Cornell did not tolerate hazing, it was clearly common enough on campuses and in “secret societies” such as fraternities that his father was well aware of what pledges endured before they officially joined a fraternity. This document also shows that, despite the danger and brutality of some of these practices, fraternities were still seen around the country as the pinnacle of upstanding manliness. Fraternity brothers were nothing more than men with good characters, upholding traditional white Protestant, heterosexual values of masculinity. Although Leggett’s death was an accident, hazing rituals, especially during the initiation process, became more purposefully dangerous after WWII. More rituals depended on heavy consumption of alcohol, and this trend towards increased substance abuse has continued today (Syrett, 2009).

Current Issues & Policy Reform

Since the mid-1980s fraternities have advertised their organizations as fast tracks towards academic excellence and future professional connections (Horowitz, 1986). Their public rhetoric is required to recruit students whose focus is to achieve good grades and careers. Within the organizations, fraternities continue to support communal cheating, violence, and rape (Horowitz, 1986). Decades after Horowitz’s conclusions, these internal practices are becoming increasingly public knowledge and in some cases, outshining any positive reputations.  Despite the increase of devastating discoveries, college men are still committing themselves to these types of organizations across the country.

Journalist John Hechinger reports one in six males attending a four-year university are fraternity members and over 380,000 males are involved in Greek Life today, a 50 percent increase over the past decade (Hechinger, 2017). Dangerous recruitment practices for new fraternity members are becoming progressively deadly. With at least one hazing death on a North American college campus every year since 1959, reform or policy changes seems like a feeble attempt to resolve the issue (Nuwer, 2017). As of December 2017, four hazing-related deaths have been recorded at separate universities; all four campuses suspended Greek Life following the incidents. Death is not the only threat to young men pledging their allegiance to these organizations. Four additional universities also suspended Greek Life following reports of hazing violations.

University administrators attempt to get ahead of the issues by suspending or banning violating organizations from campus. Studies show those who are hazed experience physical, emotional and/or mental instability, sleep deprivation, loss of sense of control and empowerment, decline in grades and coursework, post-traumatic stress syndrome, loss of respect for and interest in being part of the organization, and suffered relationships with friends, family and significant others (Downes, 2017). Though campuses nationwide prohibit hazing, 55 percent of college students involved in campus organizations have experienced hazing. Only five percent, however, have reported events to campus officials (Benton, 2017). There are many incidents that remain unknown to anyone outside of the fraternity community. Though one death should be enough for a national change, there are significant factors, specifically powerful individuals, that contribute to the decisions of university administrators.

Roughly seventy fraternity organizations have four million living alumni and represent the most respected and dominant force in the movement (Hechinger, 2017). Alumni have always been key stakeholders in policy and direction of their alma maters. These individuals remember their times at the university fondly and wish to see campus culture unchanged. Those in defense of fraternities often argue that most chapters foster brotherhood, build leadership skills and promote philanthropy.

Pennsylvania State University is one university to have a hazing death on their campus in 2017. Tim Piazza, an 18-year-old pledge, passed away after being forced to consume deadly amounts of alcohol and falling down a flight of stairs. Following the incident, the university temporarily suspended all Greek Life, permanently banned the fraternity from campus, and the Penn State Board of Trustees began work on policy change and reform. The Penn State Board of Trustees includes at least 14 alumni who were members of university Greek Life organizations (Reilly, 2017). Reforms eliminated the self-governing policies of Greek Life and have implemented a zero-tolerance hazing policy. The announcements by the board lack the immediacy and strength required to create swift and over-arching change. Those in opposition to the decision say Penn State is seeking to defuse the situation without alienating influential and wealthy fraternity alumni (Reilly, 2017).

Universities reacting to hazing incidents often announce similar policy changes and but with little long-term success. This failure is often attributed to the lack of alumni infrastructure to carry and sustain a message for longer than a few weeks or months (Altwies, 2017). Advocates call for more university official involvement with Greek Life and creating mentor and advising positions to assist in the safe development of all participants. Transparency of organizational practices and behavior is also encouraged to help educate potential pledges to make informed decisions. After the 2014 death of fraternity pledge at Clemson University, the state of South Carolina passed the Tucker Hipps Transparency Act (Altwies, 2017). The law requires public institutions of higher learning, excluding technical schools, to report all conduct violations concerning alcohol, drugs, sexual assaults, and hazing. The U.S. House of Representatives, amending the Higher Education Act of 1965, will review a bill reflective of the Tucker Hipps Transparency Act, requiring all incidents of hazing be included on campus crime reports (Altwies, 2017).

Legal Cases and Results

Carson Starkey pledged into the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter when he was a freshman at California Polytechnic State University. According to the police report, pledges were given large amounts of liquor, including rum, beer, and Everclear and were told to drink quickly as the fraternity brothers chanted “puke and rally” (Winerip, 2012). Carson Starkey passed out due to the alcohol consumption. Fraternity members attempted to drive him to the hospital, but then stopped and turned around as they were afraid of being arrested. Instead, the fraternity brothers returned to the house and put Starkey on a mattress where he later died. Carson’s blood alcohol level was .40 (Winerip, 2012). Carson’s parents, Scott and Julia Starkey, filed a lawsuit against the fraternity’s national headquarters looking “to hold them accountable” and “to make changes in the fraternity system, university and law that would protect other students and families” (Strickland, 2011). The fraternity’s national headquarters decided to end the chapter after its own investigation into Starkey’s death. The settlement also now requires “that the fraternity give parents and students more information about potential problems and dangers in the fraternity before they decide to join,” and the fraternity is required to “make fundamental changes in the way it and its chapters operate particularly concerning hazing and the availability and misuse of alcohol” (Winerip, 2012). The lawsuit which was filed in 2009 named the fraternity, the Cal Poly chapter, and 8 members of the fraternity, alleging four counts of negligence as well as a violation of Matt’s Law which is a California law that allows for lawsuits when injuries or deaths result from hazing (Strickland, 2011). In the summer of 2010 four of the men named in the lawsuit were convicted of criminal misdemeanors and sentenced to jail terms ranging from 30 days to six months (Strickland, 2011). Sentences also included community service and probation. California Polytechnic State University also modified their fraternity and sorority rules which now “blocks freshman and transfers from pledging to a fraternity or sorority until at least their second quarter” (Strickland, 2011).

Scott and Julia Starkey also filed a lawsuit against Haithem Ibrahim who was their son’s designated big brother in the fraternity. Ibrahim was responsible for choosing the alcohol that Starkey would drink in part of a fraternity drinking event. Ibrahim originally entered a no-contest plea to misdemeanor hazing which caused the death of Carson Starkey in 2008. In 2010 Haithem Ibrahim settled with Scott and Julia Starkey for $500,000 (Wilson, 2010).

In a separate incident during initiation, Phi Kappa Tau held a “Big Little Night” where Rider University Freshman Gary DeVercelly Jr. participated in a race to see who could finish a bottle of alcohol first. When DeVercelly Jr. got sick he was taken upstairs by two fraternity brothers and left to sleep it off. Two days later DeVercelly Jr. died of alcohol poisoning. Gary’s parents filed a lawsuit on his behalf against Rider University and Phi Kappa Tau alleging negligence, misconduct, and wrongful death and asked the court to award them 75 million dollars (Hagen, 2009).

After Gary DeVercelly Jr’s death in 2007, Rider University removed their charter. Gary’s family received a “substantial amount of money that remains confidential” (Hagen, 2009). The 22-year-old fraternity president settled with Gary’s family for $150,000, and another fraternity brother, Vincent Cagulero, who was Gary’s big brother in the fraternity settled the case for $375,000 (Hagen, 2009). In addition, Rider agreed to the following terms (Hagen, 2009):

  • Render Greek organizations dry by banning the use of alcohol at all Greek social events in residence halls and Greek houses on campuses
  • Strengthen sanctions and require parental notification for all alcohol policy violations”
  • Strengthen sanctions for hazing violations
  • Establish live-in directors to oversee code of conduct enforcement in all Greek houses”
  • Establish a Good Samaritan policy that encourages students to seek help first for medically compromised students without fear of campus repercussions
  • Require publication of fraternity misconduct on the Greek Affairs portion of Rider’s website so that students, parents, and the general public are advised about these incidents and potential risks

Blake Novacek, a student from the University of Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against the Gamma Phi chapter of Beta Theta Pi after he says he was brutally hazed because of a football game when their school lost to the University of Texas. Novacek’s lawsuit states that Beta Theta Pi members called its pledges to the fraternity house, forced the pledges to watch videos of hogs being slaughtered, and then asked them to recite facts about the fraternity. When he was not able to, he was hit in the stomach with a baseball bat, which caused him to fall, hit his head and lose consciousness (Andrews, 2017). The lawsuit says that members of Beta Theta Pi “carted Novacek down to the basement and put him on a couch where he sat unconscious for 10 hours with no medical help” (Andrews, 2017). When Novacek regained consciousness another member of the fraternity threatened Novacek, “claiming the fraternity would ruin his reputation, damage his things and get him kicked out of school, if he told anyone about the hazing incident” (Andrews, 2017). The next day Blake’s car was vandalized. Blake Novacek was left with traumatic brain injury from the hazing incident. Litigation is pending on this case, and the University has not said much in regards to it. A spokesman for the University of Oklahoma made only one statement saying “The university investigates every report of a violation of the Student Rights and Responsibilities Code” (Andrews, 2017). Beta Theta Pi fraternity denies all allegations.

Student Affairs, Leadership Development and Changing Fraternity Life

The department of student affairs is younger than the fraternity system and many fraternities are used to operating without the involvement or oversight of universities. Hazing and other dangerous behaviors have developed due to the autonomous nature of the fraternities. However, it cannot be ignored that the members of these organizations experience valuable leadership development opportunities (Kimbrough, 1995). A study by Erwin and Marcus-Mendoza found that students who are more involved on campus set higher goals for themselves, commit to decision-making, and are more confident in their leadership (1988). This suggests that these students are reaching higher levels of cognitive and leadership development than their uninvolved peers. Fraternities are one that students can access this development, but they must receive the same level of education and regulation as every other student group. Additionally, forming close bonds within a fraternity can improve motivation, performance and a student’s perception of their university (Erwin & Marcus-Mendoza, 1988).

These organizations can be particularly important for students of color who may not encounter similar opportunities for student development and leadership in other settings. In Black fraternities, Black men have multiple options for leadership and may be able to experience leadership development much earlier in their collegiate career than in predominantly White student groups (Kimbrough 1988). Campus involvement and leadership opportunities have been shown to improve performance and increase retention. Of all demographics, Black males drop out of college at alarmingly high rates and are reporting feelings of isolation and pressure to “conform to the White ideal” (McClure, 2006). In contrast, Black fraternities offer spaces for Black men to not only develop their leadership, but also their racial identity. For these reasons Black fraternities also impact retention since they provide support for Black students and opportunities for socializing and development that they cannot access in predominantly White spaces and groups (Credle & Dean, 1991).

Regardless of their failures or merits fraternities are not likely to disappear from campus life anytime soon. In order to highlight their advantages and mitigate their challenges universities must be willing to provide adequate support and education for fraternity members and fraternities must be willing to cooperate. Liz Jordan, the Assistant Director of Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups (FSILGs) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that strong cooperation between her office and fraternities has yielded positive results. Because of her good relationships with the organizations, students are more likely to come forward and own their mistakes when incidents occur. All fraternity executive board member participate in leadership training, which provides them with skills to manage crisis and educate their chapter about safety and school policy. Although MIT has not been free of hazing incidents since the creation of the FSILGs Administrative office, Liz finds conversations around conduct are richer and she is able to focus on educating students in risk management (L. Jordan, personal communication, November 27, 2017). While many more changes are still needed both at MIT and across the country, universities may want to consider providing fraternities with more support and oversight rather than continuing to enforce ineffective bans.

Conclusion

Hazing has been a major problem in white college fraternities for as long as they have existed in the United States. Fraternities were found to foster community but quickly became spaces that enforce dangerous gendered stereotypes of masculinity, resulting in thousands of injuries, legal cases, instances of property damages, and deaths across the country. The steps universities have taken to combat this violence has been almost entirely ineffective on a grand scale, in large part thanks to the collective wealth and strength of fraternity alumni and their influence on college life far past their time on campus. In order to curb the violence in these organizations and prevent from further damage, drastic, large-scale action is required and will likely take years to effectively develop.

References

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