West Virginia University fraternity death: How to stop 'Animal House' behavior

Police are investigating why freshman Nolan Michael Burch died after becoming unconscious at the Kappa Sigma fraternity at West Virginia University. Colleges and fraternities are under fire for incidents of sexual assault, binge drinking, and hazing.

Josh Young/The Dominion-Post/AP
West Virginia University students hold a candlelight vigil in memory of Nolan Michael Burch in Morgantown, W.Va., Friday. Burch, 18, died two days after officers were called to the Kappa Sigma fraternity house and found him unconscious and not breathing.

College fraternities are the stuff of legend, faded memories, occasional good works, and over-the-top humor. The late, great film critic Roger Ebert loved the 1978 film “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” He also found it “vulgar, raunchy, ribald, and occasionally scatological.”

In recent years, frat houses also have been the focus of criticism for sexual assaults, binge drinking, and sometimes-deadly hazing.

At West Virginia University in Morgantown Friday, 18 year-old freshman Nolan Michael Burch died. Two days earlier, he had been found unconscious and not breathing at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house.

The Morgantown chapter of Kappa Sigma had been suspended since mid-October because of other violations of the fraternity's code of conduct, according to a press release from Leo Brown, director of chapter services at Kappa Sigma. The release said the fraternity was still investigating the circumstances of the incident with Mr. Burch.

Meanwhile, the group's charter has been withdrawn and its operations closed, Brown said. The school also ordered a halt to all activities at the campus’s other fraternities and sororities, the Associated Press reports.

It’s not the only time Kappa Sigma – founded in 1869 at the University of Virginia and now numbering more than 300 chapters – has been in trouble.

After a fight involving another fraternity, the chapter at the University of Central Florida was placed on organizational probation, which means it can’t host any social activities for the rest of the fall semester, and all activities for the rest of the academic year must be alcohol-free.

In 2010, the chapter at the University of Georgia was suspended following an investigation involving hazing and illegal drugs. Kappa Sigma returned to the campus last month.

Last month, the chapter at Kansas University was placed on interim suspension while allegations of sexual assault are being investigated.

Last summer, the New York Times published a lengthy report on a case of alleged sexual assault involving Kappa Sigma members at Hobart College in Geneva, New York.

In May, the US Department of Education released a list of 55 colleges and universities – including Hobart – under investigation for possible violations of federal law over the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. As of October 22, the list had grown to 86 postsecondary institutions.

"We are making this list available in an effort to bring more transparency to our enforcement work and to foster better public awareness of civil rights," Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon said. "We hope this increased transparency will spur community dialogue about this important issue. I also want to make it clear that a college or university's appearance on this list and being the subject of a Title IX investigation in no way indicates at this stage that the college or university is violating or has violated the law."

Hazing was involved in the death of California State University, Northridge (CSUN), student Armando Villa, who collapsed during an 18-mile Pi Kappa Phi fraternity pledge hike in August.

"Hazing is stupid, senseless, dangerous and against the law in California," CSUN President Dianne Harrison said. "It is a vestige of a toxic way of thinking in which it was somehow OK to degrade, humiliate and potentially harm others."

Mr. Villa's parents issued a statement saying they're pleased the fraternity chapter is closing.

"Hazing is an awful practice. It cost our son his life. And it ought to be banned across the country," said Betty and Joseph Serrato, Villa's mother and stepfather. "No one else should suffer because of this barbaric ritual that endangers and ridicules others just for the enjoyment of immature young men."

As reports of such incidents increase, some fraternities have formed an organization to address problems of sexual misconduct, binge drinking, and hazing.

Called the Fraternal Health and Safety Initiative, the organization now includes eight fraternal organizations:  Lambda Chi Alpha, Phi Delta Theta, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Alpha Mu, Sigma Chi, Tau Kappa Epsilon and Triangle fraternities.

“Representing over 75,000 collegiate members on more than 550 campuses, the Consortium is committed to working together to implement prevention strategies to improve the health and well-being of their members and their campus communities,” the group states on its web site.

Police are investigating Nolan Michael Burch’s death this week at West Virginia University, which Playboy magazine ranks as #3 among the top ten party schools. No charges have been filed.

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