After having fallen asleep at an off-campus fraternity house that night in October, Andrew Seely awoke to find his face puffy and red. His nose and lips had ballooned, his eyes nearly swollen shut.
Seely, then a freshman at Central Michigan University, had a potentially deadly allergy to peanuts, a fact he had made known to those in the fraternity, Alpha Chi Rho, his father said. Yet on that night, someone smeared peanut butter on the 19-year-old’s face in a hazing ritual that could have killed him, his mother, Teresa Seely, said.
The student’s mother found out about the incident last month, sending her reeling on social media and prompting a criminal investigation by local police in Mount Pleasant, Mich. On Friday, 20-year-old student Dale Merza turned himself in after police issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of hazing resulting in physical injury, according to a statement from the Mount Pleasant Police Department.
If he’s convicted of the misdemeanor, Merza, of Rochester Hills, Mich., could get up to 93 days in jail — plus a $1,000 fine. But his lawyer told the Detroit Free Press he believes his client is innocent, adding “this is simply not hazing.”
“I’m confident that once the facts are laid out in court, Mr. Merza will be found not guilty of any kind of hazing. This case has been blown way out of proportion by the individual’s family members, who were not present and don’t have any of the facts,” attorney Bruce Leach told the Detroit Free Press. “Mr. Merza has never been in trouble before in his life. I don’t believe he’ll be convicted.”
Peanuts can be life-threatening to those allergic. For some, even a tiny whiff can cause a severe reaction just minutes after exposure, according to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Peanut allergies can cause anaphylaxis, a medical emergency that requires treatment with an epinephrine injector, such as an EpiPen, and a trip to the emergency room.
Although Seely did not immediately seek medical treatment after the incident, a professor eventually persuaded him to go to a campus health clinic, his parents said.
It was not until March that Seely disclosed to his parents what had happened. It was not clear why the student didn’t inform his family immediately after the incident occurred, but his mother feels he may have feared alienating friends, she told the Detroit Free Press.
He completed one semester at Central Michigan University after transferring to a different school, the name of which the parents withheld to protect him from potential retaliation.
“Our family is devastated,” Teresa Seely told the Detroit Free Press. “We thought we were sending our child off to school in a safe environment, and obviously that wasn’t the case. He could have died from this.”
If peanut butter had gotten into his mouth, the incident could easily have been fatal, his father, Paul Seely, told CBS News.
Local news station WDIV in Detroit visited the Alpha Chi Rho house after the incident but before the charges were filed, and claims to have spoken to the student who spread the peanut butter on Seely’s face. He and other unidentified students insisted it was not hazing, but rather a harmless prank.
“It was just a joke trying to be funny and put it on his face,” the student said. “We didn’t know he was allergic. It was just college students being kids.”
The students at the house said they offered to pay for Seely’s medical bills. They claim he didn’t transfer out of Central Michigan University because of the peanut butter incident, but because of a tennis scholarship to another school.
“We’re sorry to his family that just trying to be funny made it look like we were violent,” he said. “We were not trying to be violent in any sense.”
His father insisted to CBS News that his son “made it very clear” to everyone in the fraternity house that he had a peanut allergy and carries an Epi-Pen and Benadryl tablets with him at all times.
“He told them they couldn’t eat anything with peanuts around him,” Seely said. “He wears a medical bracelet. For this individual to think that it was just a joke is hard for us to comprehend.”
“That’s a form of protection on his part to say that he was just joking,” he added. “If the frat guys did this and they saw him having a reaction why didn’t they call 911?”
According to Merza’s lawyer, Leach, the two college students communicated after the incident and “everything seemed to be fine,” the Detroit Free Press reported.
“It’s a little strange that this is being brought up so late, after the fact,” Leach said.
A potential settlement conference has been scheduled for April 19.
The fraternity, Alpha Chi Rho, was banned from official recognition in 2011 as a result of hazing incidents, and recent bids for reinstatement have been denied by the university.
After police began investigating the incident last month, the National Fraternity of Alpha Chi Rho reiterated in a statement that those involved were not members of the nationally recognized fraternity, and acted independently. It said it was “appalled and upset” by the actions taken by individuals against Andrew Seely.
“Prior to this incident, when we learned that a small group of individuals had been improperly operating under our name, we promptly sent a letter to these men to stop all activity or representation of our fraternity,” the fraternity said.
Teresa Seely told Central Michigan Life that even though the list of unaffiliated organizations is made clear on the university’s website, she doesn’t think that’s enough to prevent future students from unknowingly joining “underground” fraternities.
“Who is in charge of the checks and balances with Greek life?” she said. “Not all fraternities and sororities are bad. This is an issue of hazing with this particular group of men.”
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