Alcohol or physical abuses in college fraternity initiation rituals are finally getting the treatment they deserve from prosecutors around the country: as criminal cases. Prosecutors on May 5 filed criminal charges against 18 Penn State students in the death of a 19-year-old sophomore who drank excessively and suffered severe internal injuries during a fraternity hazing.
Members of the fraternity watched him collapse and left him for hours on the floor, even walking over his body instead of calling for help. The victim died of traumatic brain injury and a ruptured spleen.
Closer to home, 22 fraternity members at Northern Illinois University were convicted of misdemeanors in a hazing-related death in 2015.
The criminal justice system's harder line is long overdue. Colleges and universities have traditionally used campus security and private disciplinary hearings to keep such problems in-house and out of the headlines. That left students unaccountable for their crimes, put other students at risk and apparently provided minimal deterrent value in curbing outrageous behavior. Faculty-student disciplinary committees are not trained in criminal law and not competent to judge guilt or innocence.
The changing attitude during the past decade comes on the heels of congressional studies and reports from respected organizations about high incidences of sexual misconduct, psychological trauma and serious injuries accompanying fraternity hazing and drunken escapades. Attorneys have changed the landscape, too, willing to take on wealthy fraternities.
A generation or two ago, hazing was accepted as part of the fraternity and sorority experience. Authorities looked the other way at initiation rituals that involved excessive drinking, and resulting deaths or allegations of sexual assault were often labeled accidents or misunderstandings. Today, there are growing calls for the fraternity system to be disbanded altogether as universities question the net contribution they make to campus life.
Civil lawsuits that are open for public scrutiny reveal chilling details about fraternity activities. Those lawsuits are partly responsible for forcing administrators to stop relying on internal disciplinary procedures as a deterrent. Parents, too, are coming forward more often to demand justice for their children, unafraid of the consequences and willing to expose perpetrators as criminals. An excellent example was last week's decision by Washington University student Katy Hutson, with her parents' backing, to come forward in the student newspaper with rape allegations.
On the positive side, fraternities can create leaders, foster lifelong friendships and provide excellent networking opportunities. University of Kentucky professor of communications Alan DeSantis notes in his 2007 book about fraternities and sororities that 85 percent of U.S. Supreme Court justices since 1910 were fraternity members, and 18 of the nation's presidents belonged to frats.
Fraternity alumni who want to remain proud of their associations should work alongside administrators, prosecutors, lawyers and families to clean up the organizations. Repeatedly tragic results only reinforce fraternities' image as big contributors to the college boozing culture.