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Newsletter > June 2017 > "Who Will Govern? University Reactions to Fraternity Tragedies"
Who Will Govern? University Reactions to Fraternity Tragedies
Amy Hebbeler, Manley Burke, email@example.com
On the heels of the tragic death of Timothy Piazza at Penn State, a lawsuit has been filed in the wake of another tragic death of a Fraternity pledge following a night of hazing and excessive consumption of alcohol.1
Ryan Abele was just 18-years old and a freshman at the University of Nevada, Reno when his life was cut short.2 Like Tim Piazza, Abele attended a fraternity ceremony for his pledge class in the journey of becoming a member of the Sigma Nu Fraternity.3 This ceremony revealed who the pledge’s “Big Brother” would be and the members were grouped into families, each with its own designated alcohol brand.4 The brand of Abele’s “family” was believed to be 100 proof Captain Morgan rum.5 Abele was told by his Big Brother that he had to drink 1/3 of the 750 milliliter bottle of rum before he left the room that they were in.6 Abele became highly intoxicated as it is believed that he had consumed approximately 250 milliliters of the bottle while also participating in other ceremonial events.7
The next morning at 5:45 am, Abele, along with the other pledges, were woken by the Fraternity members and ordered to the fraternity house to clean up the basement from the previous night’s ceremony.8 Abele stopped at the top of the unlit basement stairs leading to the equally dark basement, and was ordered by a member to get down the stairs.9 As Abele attempted to navigate the dark basement stairs while still intoxicated, he fell down the stairs and struck his head on a concrete wall at the bottom, knocking him unconscious.10 Abele was admitted to the hospital at 7:00 am with a blood alcohol level of .30.11 He later passed away from a traumatic brain injury that he sustained during the fall.12
In the wake of the tragedy, Sigma Nu national fraternity revoked the Chapter’s charter and the University suspended the Chapter for 15 years.13 More recently, Abele’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Chapter, the Housing Authority, and individual members of the Fraternity for negligence, and violations of state laws and University policies.
Two other factual discrepancies between the tragedies of Piazza and Abele should be noted. First, the fraternity members in Piazza’s case knew that something was wrong and yet did not call 911 until 12 hours after he fell. In contrast, Abele was admitted to the hospital about an hour after his fall. Further, fraternities and sororities at the University of Nevada had to sign a Relationship Agreement which outlined the rights of recognition and responsibilities of both the University and Fraternities and Sororities.14 The Agreement stated in part that the University will recognize the governance of the IFC, PC, and MGC and also attached the University of Nevada, Reno Hazing and Initiation Policy among other laws and policies.15 Additionally, there was a pledge manual given to the members of the pledge class, outlining that they would not participate in hazing.16
When there is a crisis at a University, the trend has been that the University will react in one of two ways. Either the University will work with the students and the fraternities and sororities in a collaborative attempt to make the University better and find solutions to the issues that are plaguing the University; or, on the other hand, the University will work against the students and the fraternities and sororities, taking back control and power, establishing new rules and procedures with minimal or no student input. While Penn State opted for the latter, choosing to take control of the disciplinary process away from the students, it seems that the University of Nevada chose the former.
The University of Nevada suspended the chapter operations to informally resolve the issue.17 However, the Chapter had the option of appealing the decision and going through a hearing in front of a Student Conduct Hearing Board or Hearing Officer.18 According to the University of Nevada’s Student Code of Conduct, the Student Conduct Board is comprised of both University students and faculty members.19 Thus, unlike Penn State, the University is willing to work collaboratively with the students to figure out a disciplinary action that will best prevent another tragedy from occurring.
Two similar tragedies; two different university reactions. We have yet to see if the pendulum will start swinging in the direction of Penn State and University governance of fraternities and sororities or if the collaborative governance of the disciplinary processes and recognition of self-governance, as seen at the University of Nevada, Reno, will continue to prevail.
- The tragedy and consequences of the death Timothy Piazza have been previously reported in the May 2017 Special Edition of the Fraternal Law Newsletter.
- Complaint at 6, John and Wendy Abele v. Delta Xi Chapter of Sigma Nu Fraternity, et. al., CV17-01074 (NV, 2nd Judicial District Court, Washoe County 2017).
- Id. at 6-7
- Id. at 7
- Id. At 8.
- KTVN Channel 2 “Sigma Nu Revoked Charter at UNR Campus,” (Jan.20, 2017) http://www.ktvn.com/story/34101340/university-of-nevada-suspends-sigma-nu-following-student-death1.
- University of Reno, Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, “2017 University of Nevada, Reno Relationship Agreement for the Recognition of Social Fraternities and Sororities”. https://www.unr.edu/Documents/student-services/greek-life/UNR%20Relationship%20Agreement%202017.pdf
- Id. at 2
- Complaint at 4.
- University of Nevada, Reno “Media Statement: Informal Resolution for Sigma Nu, Delta Xi Chapter” (12/6/2016) https://www.unr.edu/nevada-today/journalists/media-advisories-statements
- University of Nevada, Reno, Office of Student Conduct, “Section IV: Student Disciplinary Procedures,” Student Code of Conduct, https://www.unr.edu/student-conduct/policies/student-code-of-conduct/section-iv