National Edition

Media shines light on dark side of fraternities

Published: Saturday, March 1 2014 12:05 p.m. MST

A Youngstown State Police University officer patrols the street near the location of an early morning shooting at a fraternity house just north of the Youngstown State University campus that left student Jamail E. Johnson, 25 of Youngstown dead and 11 injured Sunday, Feb. 6, 2011 in Youngstown, Ohio. Fraternities have been criticized by the media as of late, especially with their connections to hazing deaths, sexual assaults and tragic accidents.

Mark Stahl, Associated Press

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Fraternities have come under harsh spotlight in recent months with exposés revealing a powerful, corporate-like institution that successfully dodges legal liability for hazing deaths, sexual assaults and tragic accidents.

The latest investigation is The Atlantic's March cover story where writer Caitlin Flanagan embedded herself in "the fraternity industry" and looks deep into the "endemic, lurid and sometimes tragic problems — and a sophisticated system for shifting the blame."

Summarizing the tragedies and lack of accountability, Flanagan writes: "When there is a common denominator among hundreds of such injuries and deaths, one that exists across all kinds of campuses, from private to public, prestigious to obscure, then it is more than newsworthy: it begins to approach a national scandal."

Flanagan offers lurid stories of hazing, sexual assaults, binge drinking and accidents tied to frat houses, but the heart of her story is how fraternities have immunized themselves from most lawsuits and pass along liability to the students' parents, who can suffer "devastating" financial consequences.

A single plaintiff’s attorney told Flanagan that he’s recovered "millions and millions of dollars from homeowners’ policies" from the "planning-for-retirement parents."

The Atlantic piece follows Bloomberg.com's sweeping "Broken Pledges" series in December that similarly "reveals that national fraternities dodge liability for mayhem at their local chapters, oppose anti-hazing bills in Congress and pressure colleges to drop restrictions on recruiting freshmen."

In an editorial, Bloomberg called on colleges and universities to focus on their mission of educating young adults and for the "reform and, when necessary, abolition of campus fraternities."

Both the Atlantic and Bloomberg pieces have responses from the fraternity leaders who say the accidents and other problems are the fault of "knuckleheads" who are individually responsible for violating policies.

But Flanagan, who in a 2011 Wall Street Journal piece called for shuttering fraternities to protect women from sexual assault, told National Public Radio this week that 85 percent of the legal claims against fraternities could be eliminated through a single policy change: banning alcohol.

"If the fraternities are serious about cleaning up their act, that's the change they need to make, and it's a very painful one," she said. "It will probably devastate them, in terms of the numbers of kids who want to join, because pumping the keg is part of being in a fraternity in American culture. But that's the change that would clean the system up."

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