Matthew Ellis, a 20-year-old Phi Kappa Psi pledge at Texas State University (TSU), on Nov. 13 became the fourth college student found dead this year after drinking a copious amount of alcohol at a fraternity-related event. Police have not yet confirmed whether the death was a result of hazing practices.
The tragedy comes on the heels of the similar deaths of 20-year-old Andrew Coffey at Florida State University (FSU) on Nov. 3, 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver at Louisiana State University (LSU) on Sept. 14 and 19-year-old Timothy Piazza at Penn State University on Feb. 3.
TSU has suspended all Greek life. FSU indefinitely suspended all fraternities and sororities at the school. Phi Delta Theta, the fraternity Gruver had pledged to, removed LSU’s chapter from the national organization. Alcohol, with the exceptions of beer and wine, has been banned at all fraternity and sorority events at Penn State University.
The string of deaths has caused universities across the country to reflect on their own efforts to prevent hazing.
A Hazing Death at the U
The University of Utah’s first reckoning regarding hazing practices occurred nearly a century ago when a student was killed on campus in 1925.
Aspiring writer Reginald Stringfellow succumbed to meningitis induced by a hazing ritual which dictated that all freshmen who didn’t wear a green skull cap be dunked in an iron tub of water. Stringfellow was dunked four separate times by upperclassmen.
The community was outraged and his family was disconsolate, but student leaders and university officials were initially unapologetic about the actions, according to reports by the Salt Lake Telegram.
Acting Student Body President Virginia Budd said she didn’t know who dunked Stringfellow, but if she did, she would not disclose their identities. She and school officials felt that because the upperclassmen didn’t intend to hurt Stringfellow, they should not be held accountable.
“She explained that the campus tradition is that freshmen who do not wear the green skull caps are to be ducked,” read a Jan. 7, 1925 Salt Lake Telegram article on the incident. “Reginald Stringfellow was warned and he did not heed the warning. So he was ducked. A second time he offended and a second time he was punished. On a third and fourth occasion he appeared on the campus without his badge of verdancy, and each time he was subjected to a tubbing.”
At the time, all freshmen at the U were subject to the longstanding tradition.
“There was no intent to injure, the student body head explained,” the article said. “It was merely an attempt to make a conformist out of Reginald Stringfellow.”
Budd resolved to discuss milder penalties and ending tubbing for “non-conformists” at a student body assembly after he contracted the illness. Meanwhile, then-U President George Thomas asked the student body, as Stringfellow laid on his deathbed, to consider the effects of hazing, but he didn’t take any action to curtail it.
Then-Salt Lake County attorney Arthur Moreton opened an investigation into the incident.
“I wish something could be done, whatever it is, that will effectually stop such nonsense at a place of learning and preserve the sons of other parents from injury or death,” Charles Stringfellow, Reginald’s father, told the Salt Lake Telegram. “We should demand that much, to assuage our grief.”
After he became sick, Reginald Stringfellow continued to try to attend classes at the U, his mother said to the Salt Lake Telegram. He hadn’t lost sight of his dream to write and didn’t want to get behind on credits. Whenever he successfully made it to school, however, he would return home early because his head hurt too badly.
“From that fourth ducking until his death, Reginald seemed to realize that his hoped for career had been blighted by those enjoying the privileges and upholding the traditions of the very institution to which he had looked as an alma mater,” the Salt Lake Telegram’s Jan. 7 article stated.
Upon his death, Budd appointed a committee comprised of students, faculty and alumni to investigate the practice.
The November before Stringfellow died, a number of freshmen held a meeting to condemn tubbing, reported the Salt Lake Telegram. They said the tradition was especially egregious when temperatures were below freezing. Student government subsequently forbid tubbing during winter months. However, Stringfellow was dunked before the order was put in place.
“Students who are not in accord with the tubbing practice, many of whom denounce ducking as silly and dangerous, assert that while Stringfellow’s death is the first fatality laid to this horseplay, there have been several students severely injured and some near-fatalities from the exposure incident to being ducked,” said a Jan. 8 article in the Salt Lake Telegram. “Student body loyalty has, it is said, hushed up many of these injuries.”
Although the student government was reluctant to make the move, it ultimately voted to ban tubbing three days after Stringfellow passed away.
The county attorney’s office chose not to press charges against students involved in the death, saying it would be difficult to prove to a jury that Stringfellow died as a result of the hazing. The coroner’s report, however, attributed Stringfellow’s meningitis to the exposure that occurred during the tubbing. The office did pledge to prosecute anyone that participated in the practice going forward.
Where the U Stands
The last investigation into a hazing incident at the U was conducted in 2010. Although the complaint made against the fraternity was never disclosed, the national Pi Kappa Alpha suspended its chapter at the U while it looked into the incident. The chapter president denied the allegations.
“They’re not true,” Jordan Ganung told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Regardless of the validity of these or any claims, our national fraternity’s policy is suspension of all activity until an investigation is complete.”
Utah state code prohibits hazing in any context in section 53A-11a. On the university’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life website, there is a link to report any occurrence of hazing. According to the website, all national fraternity and sorority policies also forbid hazing “and are committed to a membership education period that instills a sense of responsibility and commitment in the new members.”
The office did not respond to requests for comment regarding recent hazing deaths at universities across the country by the time this story went to print.
“Hazing is against the law in the State of Utah and is taken seriously by the University of Utah, the Office of the Dean of Students, and the governing councils,” the website stated. “The University of Utah has a zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing.”