Hazing: sometimes a lethal game

Chuck Stenzel was the sort of young man who gave long hair a good name. "He's just one of the finest young people I know," exclaimed a neighbor who still found it difficult to talk of him in the past tense.

Chuck lived in Sayville, Long Island, with his mother and stepfather, Eileen and Roy Stevens, stepbrothers Steve and Scott, and stepsister Suzanne. He owned his own pickup truck and boat and spent his summers clamming to help meet the cost of his education.

On Feb. 24, 1978, he was killed in a fraternity initiation rite at New York State's Alfred University, where he was a sophomore economics major.

That night, under what his mother has termed "extreme pressure" from other fraternity members, Chuck Stenzel decided to submit himself, along with at least three others, to an initiation for membership of the exclusive, 35-member Klan Alpine, whose clapboard fraternity house lies close to the University campus in the town of Alfred, itself 60 miles from Rochester.

In fraternity parlance, what Chuck Stenzel attended was a "tapping party," the first social event after prospective fraternity members or pledges have been selected or "tapped."

Like the other pledges he was locked in the trunk of a car with a pint of whisky, a bottle of wine, and a six-pack of beer and told to drink it. Whether he was told to consume the liquor in a prescribed period of time is not clear. Mrs. Stevens says that despite her entreaties, neither the university nor the fraternity have disclosed details of the fatal incident. Two facts are certain, she says: He disliked drinking, and the night was a chilling 9 degrees (F).

When the trunk was opened some 40 minutes later Chuck Stenzel was, by nearly all accounts, unconscious. Mrs. Stevens believes that bruises on his hands indicate he pounded on the lid to be let out but that no one heard him. Worried "brothers" hastily took him into the fraternity house and put him to bed.

"Supposedly they were to check on him every 15 minutes," says Mrs. Stevens. "But the boy that related the story to me told me that he was too drunk, and he passed out. No one checked on anyone. And when Chuck was discovered some time later it was too late. The other two boys were in critical condition for almost 72 hours, so it was almost a triple tragedy."

Both of the other boys, Philip Fezza then 18, a freshman business major from Massapequa, Long Island, and William Bush, a freshman liberal arts major from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also then 18, were hospitalized. They boty recovered and were deemed to have passed their initiation. Today both are members of Klan Alpine.

An autopsy indicated that Chuck Stenzel died of acute alcoholic intoxication. Pathologist Dr. Paul Kolisch said Stenzel was a victim of respiratory failure "from exposure to alcohol and cold."

A five-week investigation revealed no evidence of criminal activity or wrongdoing, according to george Francis, allegancy District Attorney, who said no further action was contemplated. Alfred University withdrew its recognition of the fraternity after the incident. It took no disciplinary action against any of the fraternity's 25 or so members who took part in the hazing.

"I was so outraged that that was all that happened, that no responsibility was placed on anyone," says Mrs. Stevens. "I felt that it was barely a slap on the wrist in the light of the fact that a life was lost. I would have imagined that the fraternity would have been disbanded, or someone would have been expelled. I felt that the school certainly had the moral responsibility to take more punitive action, and it did not."

Unknown to Mr. and Mrs. Stevens and, they believe, to their son as well, Klan Alpine was on probation in February, 1978, as a result of a barroom brawl the year before, in which several students were badly beaten. That parents and incoming pledges were not informed of this, says Mrs. Stevens, was "shocking."

Mrs. Steven says Alfred's Dean for Student Affairs, Donald King, promised there would be an investigation into the tragedy and that depositions would be taken. To this day, however, she says the university has never provided her with an explanation of what happened that night. "The statements taken from the boys have never been shared with me." Moreover, District Attorney George Francis has never furnished her with a copy of his report on the incident despite several requests to do so, she says.

As far as Eileen Stevens is concerned, there are several unanswered questions concerning the tragedy: Who told her son to consume the liquor? Who told him to get into the trunk of the car? And who, if anybody, refused to let him out?

In August, 1978, she filed a civil suit against Alfred University. Its assumption, says her New York lawyer, Thomas Culhane, is that somebody was responsible for what happened to her son. Alfred University has consistently denied responsibility, pointing out that Chuck Stenzel died off- campus at a private fraternity party. Says Mrs. Stevens: "To say they assume no responsibility is kind of contradictory if they have the jurisdiction to put a fraternity on probation." The suit is still pending.

Although Alfred University continues to disassociate itself from Klan Alpine and doesn't expect to restore relations "in the immediate future," according to Donald King, the fraternity is still in existence and still holds parties in its fraternity house. In the year after the Stenzel tragedy, Klan Alpine had one of its largest pledge classes, according to a reliable source. "They've attained some sort of notoriety," remarks Mrs. Stevens quietly.

To this day, Alfred officials have never conceded that Chuck Stenzel was killed in a hazing incident, says Mrs. Stevens. When Dean King called Chuck's parents to tell them about their son, he told them the young man had died of an alcohol overdose at a party, they say. After the fatal hazing, Alfred's President, M. Richard Rose, declared: "Drinking is a serious problem at college campuses in the United States, and Alfred University obviously is not immune." Later that year he resigned to become president of Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), conceding that the Chuck Stenzel case was "a factor" in his decision to leave.

Alfred University held a memorial service for Chuck Stenzel, and the members of his dormitory planted a tree in his memory on the campus.

As a result of what happened to her son, Mrs. Stevens and her sister formed the Committee Halting Useless College Killings, or CHUCK, in August, 1978. "I began to feel that I wanted to do something," she recalls. "I had received many , many letters from concerned people who had read the account [of Chuck's hazing ] in the newspapers. Young people were sharing similar incidents with me. Parents were not only expressing condolences and sympathies, but sometimes they were revealing an incident that they either knew of or that had occurred in their family. I've got thousands of letters, and the stories are incredible, shocking, sickening. I think hazing happens far more often than people realize."

She began by writing an open letter to incoming students at Alfred, warning them of the dangers of the practice. "When I talk about hazing, I'm talking about life-threatening, dangerous hazing, where there is a total disregard for human life, and dangerous unnecessary risks are taken," she emphasizes. She is not antifraternity, she insists, simply anti-abuse. And she's certainly not opposed to people enjoying themselves, she stresses.

CHUCK doesn't yet have a network of chapters, but it can claim one in Metairie, Louisiana. This was started by Alice King, whose son Robert received a serious eye injury in a hazing incident at Tulane University. "She asked me if she could use the group's name and write to all the schools in her area," explains Mrs. Stevens.

Eileen Stevens has received thousands more letters since founding CHUCK, mostly from undergraduates and alumni retailing hazing horrors. "Countless cases of physical and mental hazing go unreported," she claims. "Fraternities cover up, and the universities don't want their names blemished. But I'm happy to say at this point that many fraternities have come out in support of what I'm doing and are working with me."

Mrs. Stevens has done a lot of research on hazing.She estimates some 60 students have been killed in fraternity rites since the turn of the century, 20 of these since 1972. Thousands more have been injured, she adds. "Eight have died since Chuck. That's shocking figure in little more than 18 months."

According to Jack Anson, executive director of the National Interfraternity Conference in Indianapolis, which represents some 50 national fraternities with 4,500 chapters at 640 colleges, "There has been no increase in dangerous hazing among national fraternieies." Mr. Anson notes, however, that fraternity membership has been increasingly yearly since 1972, when it reached its lowest ebb after declining steadily since the mid-1960s.

Bill Bringham, executive vice-president of Sigma Chi fraternity, agrees. "We have more members than ever, and most [fraternities] have waiting lists to get in."

Irving L. Janis, a Yale University psychology professor and author of "Victims of Groupthink," holds that students submit to hazing because of pressure from their peers to do so. "There is the enormous fear that every group member has that to refuse puts one in danger of being a deviant by violating a group norm," Professor Janis has observed. He notes that the members of a fraternity "merely tend to think of what they are doing as simply parallel to what they endured. It's a matter of misjudgment. None of them really wants to commit manslaughter."

In a hazing study published last year in the "Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology," authors Elliott Aronson and Judson Mills assert that a pledge who endures a grisly initiation of ordeal is likely to find his fraternity membership more rewarding.

Educator and social anthropologist Frank W. Young notes in his book "Initiation Ceremonies" that a social group with a high degree of solidarity is likely to devise the most extreme initiation rites. The group solidarity that stems from fraternity hazing has been likened to that of boot camp. Getting through it builds a sense of pride, he says.

Mrs. Stevens insists that the problem of hazing is of national dimensions, but adds that many fraternities are alive to it. She points out that, though the rules are too often broken, "the vast majority of national fraternities have outlawed hazing in their constitutions for years."

Alpha Sigma Phi, with its national headquarters in Delaware, Ohio, is typical. Executive director Kevin Garvey says he will not tolerate physical or mental hazing among the fraternity's chapters. Along with the Fraternity Executives Association (FEA), Alpha Sigma Phi defines hazing as "any action . . . which produces mental, emotional, or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harrassment, or ridicule." Among the activities it considers hazing are: excessive drinking, paddling of any kind, physical or psychological shock, public stunts and buffoonery, and the curiously- phrased "wearing of conspicuous materials."

Declares George Spasyk, a former FEA president: "If you would be afraid or embarrassed to do it in front of the president of the university, your parents, the executive director of your fraternity, or a reporter from the local newspaper or TV station, then it is probably hazing." The FEA roundly condemns all hazing and calls on its members and their fraternities to help rid campuses of it.

Mr. Garvey admits that control of chapters is "to a degree" a problem, but stresses a distinction must be made between local fraternities that enjoy no guidance from a national organization and national fraternities that do. Mr. Garvey insists that it is made clear to Alpha Sigma Phi chapters that hazing, whether physical or mental, will not be countenanced. "I'm totally against it," he says. "I tell them we can be sued and go under with one incident." He adds that there are more and more hazing accidents in dormitories, quite unrelated to fraternities.

Hazing is not so easily banned in local fraternities, authorities agree. "If the fraternity my son joined had a national headquarters, something more would have been done, says Mrs. Stevens. "But it was the one and only. It was a local. And they have no one to oversee them, although they do have two faculty advisors from the university. A national has a much loser watch on it." But, echoing Mr. Garvey, she observes that chapters of nationals cannot always be relied upon to eliminate hazing from their midst. "There is a problem in that the local chapter has some degree of autonomy from their respective national," she notes.

Mrs. Stevens also points out that efforts among university officials to combat hazing vary widely from campus to campus. while some college presidents look the other way where hazing is concerned, she says, others "really take punitive action. For instance, there are one or two schools where immediate expulsion results if anything of that nature goes on." She says that St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York imposes a $150 fine for any kind of participation in hazing -- be it only demeaning or degrading. And if anybody is injured, she adds, the culprits are immediately expelled. "I admire administators who have the courage to take a positive stand, because I know it does take courage. And in this day of enrollment and financial problems, no one wants to expell anyone. We don't expect our young people to be led by the hand, but we expect them to be in good hands."

Mrs. Stevens says that one of the main reasons she founded CHUCK was to lobby for tougher legislation against hazing in the state of New York. At the time of her son's death the practice was considered harassment and classified as a violation of the state penal law punishable by 14 days in jail and a $50 fine.

She won the support of Assemblyman Paul Harenberg of the 5th Assembly District that includes Sayville, and he introduced a bill into the New York State Assembly to outlaw the practice. It made hazing that creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine and hazing that results in serious physical injury or death a class E felony punishable by up to four years in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. It passed in the Assembly by 133 to 7 and later in the Senate by 52 to 2.

But the bill was vetoed by Gov. Hugh Carey, who held that the offenses in the bill were punishable under other sections of state law, and contended that constitutional problems might arise from enacting a law that sets separate penalties for one class of citizens. He also maintained that the bill's provisions were so vague they would be hard to enforce. He was reportedly encouraged to veto the legislation by the State District Attorneys Association.

"It was a very bitter disappointment when Governor Carey vetoed the bill," says Mrs. Stevens. "He felt that the existing laws of manslaughter and reckless endangerment would apply, but in every case that we researched these laws were never applied -- the reason being that the pledge was a willing participant." She emphasizes that "these kids do not know exactly what the initiation requirement is until it's underway or until it's too late. We're talking about unsuspecting students. Traditionally these initiations and hazing rites are secret."

Assemblyman Harenberg observed that the Governor had referred to "the unwillingness of the prosecutor or grand jury to impose criminal responsibility on a young student under circumstances which, however tragic, are more in the nature of an accident than a crime."

Mr. Harenberg retorts: "Whatever hazing may be, it is certainly not an accident. That kind of presumption has created much of the problem. Hazings are not accidental. Accidents occur spontaneously. Hazings are planned, premeditated acts which have sadistic implications. They are tied up with the desperate search for sensational and outrageous expression of surging macho."

Someone asked Mrs. Stevens at a recent convention where the responsibility for hazing lies. "I feel it lies with all of us," she replied. "I think as parents we should take a more active part in what our young people are getting involved in. If my son had told me he was joining a fraternity I probably would have said: "Terrific, good luck!' -- never dreaming what was ahead for him. I was naive and in the dark about this kind of thing. I think college administrations have to take a closer look at "hells weeks" [periods of initiation] because they are common now on campuses. If seven or eight states have deterred this type of thing by having a law enacted, why shouldn't we all do it?"

". . . I feel I've taken my grief and tried to channel it into a positive direction," she says. "I would like to feel that I would save another mother from what I've experienced. I know for a fact my son Chuck would never want it to happen to anyone else -- to his friends or to his own brothers. I think awareness is the key. If we can make people aware of this terrible problem of hazing I truly feel he will not have died in vain."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Hazing: sometimes a lethal game
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today