Lessons Learned From Cornell Hazing Death


In February 2011, three Cornell students pledging the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon (S.A.E.) went to kidnap two brothers in a common practice that occurs usually at the very end of pledging and allows pledges to test the brothers' own knowledge of the fraternity and engage in customary binge drinking. One of the brothers who was kidnapped, George Desdunes, was a sophomore in the fraternity, and had already been drinking heavily that night prior to his kidnapping. After the ritual, the pledges and other participating brothers left him on a couch in the S.A.E. house sitting up so that he could vomit if he needed to without choking, but otherwise did not tend to him. Desdunes died of alcohol poisoning later that night with a recorded blood alcohol content of 0.356. Certainly such a reckless act that could have avoided should be prevented in the future.

Hazing is a practice often used by fraternities and sororities in collegiate Greek systems to test pledges and secure their true loyalty to the organization before fully admitting them. Hazing can range from assigning pledges to brothers to do "pledge runs", like turning in a brother's homework in a building across campus, or drinking on "80s night", where one 40 ounce bottle of malt liquor is taped to each hand and the pledge must drink all 80 ounces in one sitting. Some argue that hazing is a standard, familial practice; some argue that it is dangerous. But 55% of students that rush and then pledge a fraternity or sorority have experienced hazing in some capacity, whether it is friendly or not. The problem is that it is impossible for investigators, legislators, and even school administrators to determine how "serious" the hazing is and at what cost. 95% of hazing instances are not reported to the school and 9 out of 10 students who have experienced hazing behavior do not even believe that they were hazed. 

An article published in March by Dartmouth student Andrew Lohse revealed the extremes of hazing at a notoriously Greek Ivy League school. The article resulted in a massive controversy about what was fact and what was fiction, most notably the appalling practice of forcing pledges to swim in a kiddie pool filled with every imaginable bodily fluid produced by their soon-to-be, so-called brothers of S.A.E., incidentally the same fraternity where George Desdunes was a brother and died.

The three boys responsible for the death of Desdunes were charged with hazing in the first degree and unlawfully serving alcohol to a child, as Desdunes was under 21; they were acquitted on Wednesday. Desdunes was not served justice - but their acquittal is not why this is so. It is the fault of the prosecution for going after hazing as the guilty party, and not the actual people responsible. 

This extraordinary case resulted in a great deal of media attention as it formed the intersection of a variety of issues, the first of which is that hazing is a national phenomenon that has been condemned and challenged repeatedly. Hazing is a voluntary practice that requires the willingness of the person being hazed to be hazed; it should be treated as equally as drug and alcohol education in schools. Just as a person may choose to ingest and abuse substances, a person may choose to join a Greek organization. Therefore, the person volunteers his or herself to whatever tasks are required of them by the brothers or sisters. So long as it is friendly hazing and they are not forced to do anything; but they may choose to ingest or swim in whatever is being offered. Friendly hazing could be a scavenger hunt with clues about the organization's history or a costume party. In this defense of Greek life, published soon after Lohse's Rolling Stone expose, Amy Hansen writes, "as with everything in life, sometimes situational extremes can skew outcomes and perceptions." 

This extreme skewed the outcome of a trial that should have been to honor a life lost tragically and recklessly. The wrenching details of Desdunes' life, a star pre-med 19 year old from Brooklyn, who wrote in his application to Cornell about his mother's sacrifices that enabled him to pursue his dreams, are frankly irrelevant. Even if he had been the son of a governor it would have been a tragedy. The prosecution allowed these details to cloud their judgment; they went after hazing instead of the students. The students should have been charged with reckless endangerment for their indifference to Desdunes' survival that night. Instead, the prosecutors chose to pursue justice of the symptom. Perhaps they would have been acquitted on those charges as well; the point is that they were charged with the wrong crime.

The deciding factor in this case was the testimony of the other brother who was kidnapped, Gregory Wyler, who reiterated that at any point Desdunes could have stopped drinking and could have excused himself from the rest of the ritual. Certainly, the three boys charged could have also stopped grilling him once they realized he was intoxicated beyond any cognitive ability. It was a lapse in judgment from each party involved.

There needs to be better education about hazing in college and, simultaneously, about drinking as well. Abstinence-only education has been proven to never work when it comes to sex; why would it work for alcohol and drugs? College students are going to drink - it is society's obligation to ensure that they drink responsibly, and that they get help if they don't drink responsibly. Sex is not illegal (between consenting adults), alcohol is illegal for those under 21 years of age, and drugs are illegal for all, but hazing is illegal only when crimes are committed. 

George Desdunes would still be alive had he and his friends been aware of safe drinking practices and, more importantly, of safety procedures when someone has been drinking excessively. Similarly, college orientations should have hazing seminars that help students distinguish between what is friendly hazing and what is dangerous when they are rushing and pledging Greek organizations and joining athletic teams.