Cornell looks to end hazing after student drinking death

Cornell University is moving to eradicate risky pledging practices at campus fraternities and sororities to avert hazing mishaps like the one in February in which a New York City sophomore died after an induction ritual involving coerced drinking.

Many of Cornell's fraternities and sororities dating back to the 1800's but traditional initiation rites will now be left in the past. Cornell's president has informed fraternities and sororities that pledging will no longer be a part of the way students are inducted. At many colleges, pledging involves hazing prospective members or openly humiliating them.

" We have for over three decades banned hazing on campus, it's against the law in the State of New York and yet it continues under the guise of pledging," said Tommy Bruce, Cornell's Vice President for Communications.

In a letter to the New York Times , Cornell President David Skorton said the death of George Desdunes, a sophomore who was being hazed at a Cornell fraternity house last February, convinced him that the fraternity culture needed to change.

Skorton says the problems go beyond initiation rites. In the letter he says fraternity and sorority members are two to three times more likely to engage in high risk drinking or drug use.

" What we're most concerned about is strengthening the Greek system in a way that does away with practices that promote or encourage risky behavior and hazing ," said Bruce.

On Thursday, several students said they agreed with the change.

" You get a bunch of college age students together without any type of real supervision and you give them power over other students and you're going to end up with bad things happening. So I do feel it's outdated," said Khalil Fuller, who was visiting campus.

Traditions can be hard to break and some new freshman on campus said they thought the ban on pledging might be excessive.

" It sort of messes with the frat culture a little bit because the whole pledging thing and hazing is integral to what frats are ," said Cornell freshman Zach Steele.

Cornell expects to have its new system in place by the fall of 2012 and "we hope that this really does catch on" on campuses around the country, Travis Apgar, Cornell's associate dean of students for fraternities and sororities, said in an interview. "We're not talking about further restrictions (but) about really helping them abide by existing rules."

George Desdunes of Brooklyn, was found unconscious on a couch at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house at Cornell on Feb. 25 and later was pronounced dead. Authorities said his blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.35 percent, more than four times the legal limit for driving.

In the early morning hours before his death, Desdunes had consented to a mock kidnapping - a ritual in which pledges quiz brothers on fraternity lore, according to court documents.

Desdunes and another brother had their hands and feet bound with zip ties and duct tape. When they answered questions incorrectly, the two did exercises or were given drinks like flavored syrup or vodka. Pledges dropped him off at the fraternity house after 5 a.m.

In June, his mother filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful-death lawsuit against the national fraternity, which was founded at the University of Alabama in the 1850s. The lawsuit didn't name Cornell but criticized the school for promoting fraternity membership "without identifying any of the documented risks of pledging and membership in fraternities."

Three former fraternity pledges at Cornell pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges in connection with the death. Prosecutors say the fraternity, whose recognition was revoked by Cornell, will be summoned to face the same misdemeanor charges.