The ‘deadliest’ fraternity has eliminated pledging


Police survey the front of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house where a University of Maryland student was found unconscious in September 2001. He and later pronounced dead. (Kevin Clark/The Washington Post)

In December, Bloomberg News declared Sigma Alpha Epsilon the “deadliest” fraternity in the country. This week, the fraternity officially eliminated pledging.

SAE is among the largest fraternities in the country, with more than 200 chapters nationwide and about 14,000 undergraduate members. It’s also one of the oldest, celebrating its 158th birthday on Sunday.

And it has had a high-profile hazing problem. Bloomberg News reported on some of the notable abuses — which one pledge compared to torture and likened to Guantanamo Bay — while also noting that nine people died in events related to SAE between 2006 and 2013, more than any other fraternity during that span. (The deaths weren’t all hazing-related, though; several stemmed from unrelated drinking and drug use. And, of course, people fall off of fraternity houses alarmingly often.)

“[W]e have experienced a number of incidents and deaths, events with consequences that have never been consistent with our membership experience,” SAE said in a statement.

So the fraternity has decided to move away from pledging so it can “protect the future of the organization in challenging times.” Pledging, the fraternity says in its explanation of how new member initiation will go from now on, is “an institutionalized system of haves and have-nots, of second-class citizenship.”

Any current pledges have to be initiated by Tuesday, SAE said. From now on, anybody who is offered a bid to SAE must be initiated within four days.

“Being a new member in any fraternity should never be about servitude, memorizing obscure facts or enduring any physical challenge,” SAE says.

What remains to be seen is what impact this has on other fraternities. SAE is a big, high-profile organization, which means this move could lead to other Greek organizations potentially following suit. A member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon board of directors called the change “a game changer.”

It could be difficult to get SAE chapters to buy into this, something SAE acknowledged in its announcement. For instance, members of some chapters may just choose not to follow the new rules. After all, the fraternity already “maintains a zero-tolerance policy for hazing” (it says so right on their site), which means the hazing that has occurred has been in violation of the rules.

The fraternity and universities around the country have suspended multiple SAE chapters in recent years for hazing or alcohol-related violations.

But SAE  says it hopes to “lead the way” among other Greek organizations with the change. Chapters that treat new members as “second-class citizens” — as pledges — will be closed down, it says.

 

Mark Berman is a reporter on the National staff. He runs Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and developing stories from around the country.
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Mark Berman · March 7