Syracuse University students trying to join Nu Alpha Phi, an Asian-American fraternity, were given demerits when they made mistakes during pledging, and a way to work them off.
There were push-ups and situps in the attic of the fraternity house, according to investigators and students. There were extended periods in a sitting position — knees bent, backs to the wall — that tested their physical strength and resolve. And on one frigid night in March, there were exercises outdoors in a park, with three pledges crawling and rolling in the snow with no gloves. One of them got frostbite on both hands and faced losing several fingers.
The number of Asian-American fraternities and sororities has grown over the last generation as the children and grandchildren of immigrants, feeling shut out of existing Greek organizations, began to create their own.
And as those groups have spread across the country, some have replicated not only the social networking of other fraternities, but also their excesses.Photo
Last month, prosecutors in Pennsylvania announced that they planned to charge members of an Asian-American fraternity, Pi Delta Psi, in connection with a hazing-related death of a freshman at Baruch College in Manhattan during a retreat in the Poconos in December 2013. At least three other students have died during activities at Asian-American fraternities since 2005, and many more have been injured, resulting in a spate of criminal prosecutions, lawsuits and school disciplinary actions against fraternities and their members.
It is difficult to say whether abuses are more common in Asian-American organizations than in others. There are no official statistics on fraternity deaths and injuries across the United States. But people who have studied the issue say they have been surprised by the number of episodes, given that Asian-American fraternities occupy just a small corner of the collegiate Greek world.
“There shouldn’t be this many deaths, this many cases, for this small number of organizations, chapters and members, ” said Walter M. Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University in New Orleans, who is leading a task force on hazing prevention for the North-American Interfraternity Conference.
Across the country, there are more than 65 Asian-American fraternities and sororities, by some estimates, though most have small memberships and operate without permanent headquarters, professional staff or campus housing for students. Lambda Phi Epsilon International Fraternity, one of the largest with dozens of chapters, has experienced the most problems, including three deaths. Peter Tran, 18, a student at San Francisco State University, died after attending a fraternity party in 2013; the fraternity was subsequently expelled by university officials. Phanta Phoummarath, 18, a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, died after drinking at a fraternity party in 2005; his family received a $4.2 million settlement in a lawsuit against Lambda Phi Epsilon and its members.
In a third case, in 2005, Kenny Luong, 19, a student at Cal Poly Pomona in California, died from fatal head injuries after playing football against Lambda Phi Epsilon members from the University of California, Irvine. Mr. Luong and his schoolmates were trying to start a chapter at their own college, and as a requirement, they had to face off against the existing chapter at Irvine in a game without any helmets or pads, the authorities said. In a lawsuit against the fraternity that ended with a $1.7 million settlement, Mr. Luong’s family said the game was simply hazing in disguise, with the Irvine players often gang-tackling members of Mr. Luong’s outnumbered team, even when they did not have the ball.
In the Baruch case, Chun Hsien Deng, 19, died after a ritual known as the “glass ceiling,” in which he was tackled by fraternity members while blindfolded and weighed down with a sand-filled backpack as he tried to cross a frozen yard, prosecutors said. After he was knocked out, they said, fraternity members delayed getting help and sought to cover up their involvement. Five of the 37 defendants are facing third-degree murder charges; the rest face charges that include assault, hindering apprehension and hazing.Photo
Amid growing concerns over hazing, members of Lambda Phi Epsilon and other Asian-American fraternities and sororities say their organizations have actively promoted no-hazing policies, increased training for members and replaced potentially abusive pledging rites, such as strenuous runs around campus, with talks on Asian-American issues and walks for cancer.
Alex Huang, 21, a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, who belongs to Lambda Phi Epsilon, said that students who want to join his fraternity go to workshops, including one on “Lambda Man training,” where they are told to stand up for themselves and to know what is right. “Now there’s not much of anything that happens,” he said.
Still, problems continue to crop up. Mr. Huang’s chapter was cited by university officials for hazing and serving alcohol to a minor in 2013. It was placed on probation and barred last year from holding social activities and recruiting new members. The Lambda Phi Epsilon chapter at Rutgers University was suspended this year over hazing.
In the Syracuse case involving frostbite, Nu Alpha Phi was banned from campus and two of its members, Tae Kim and Jeffrey Yam, who served as pledge masters, are awaiting trial on a misdemeanor charge of hazing. If convicted, they face up to a year in jail.
A lawyer for Mr. Yam could not be reached. James Hopkins, a lawyer for Mr. Kim, described him as a good student from a humble background who had no prior record and teaches chess to children. While he said it was unfortunate that the pledging student suffered frostbite, he said, “we are adamant that the same was not the result of criminal conduct on the part of Tae Kim.” (Ultimately, the student did not lose any fingers.)
Richard Cohn, a lawyer who represented the family of Mr. Luong, the student who died after the football game, said that hazing continues even when students are told they do not have to take part. Pledges are intimidated and fear they will be rejected by the fraternity if they do not participate in the rites, he said. “In practice, what is really happening is flat-out hazing despite the fact that they put together all kinds of legal documents that set forth rules against hazing and all the members are supposed to sign off on it,” he said.Photo
The leaders of Lambda Phi Epsilon, Nu Alpha Pi and Pi Delta Psi did not respond to emails or calls seeking comment.
Brian Gee, the director of risk reduction for another Asian-American fraternity, Pi Alpha Phi, says that any time there is a hazing-related death or injury “it’s a huge setback” for leaders who are trying to make positive changes within their organizations and reinforces negative perceptions of them.
“We’re always trying to do our best,” Mr. Gee said. “Every fraternity out there, Asian or not, has had setbacks. We do have very high expectations of our memberships to follow our policies. When violations are found, we do our best to hold chapters accountable. Sometimes that comes in the form of educational programming. Other times, it’s sanctions or suspensions of chapters.”
The history of Asian-American fraternities and sororities can be traced back to Rho Psi, which was started in 1916 at Cornell University by Chinese men who found themselves excluded from all-white fraternities.
Several Asian-American fraternities and sororities took root in California, where they thrived primarily on state university campuses. Starting in the mid-1980s and for the next two decades, many more Asian-American fraternities and sororities were founded across the country as the Asian population grew. The organizations are open to non-Asian students as well.
Today, the groups remain relatively unknown, partly because, like many fraternities and sororities, their members are often secretive about the organizations’ inner workings. When Lambda Phi Epsilon and Pi Alpha Phi brawled in a park in San Jose, Calif., in 2003, leaving one man dead and others injured, Dr. Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University, noted that some police officers initially mistook them for Asian gangs.Photo
Julie J. Park, an assistant education professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has studied national data on college freshman, estimated that approximately 2 percent of Asian-American students join Asian-American fraternities and sororities. For those who do, she said, those organizations add diversity to Greek life and can give Asian-Americans a more prominent role in campus social life. “I think when they are at their best, there’s a lot of good potential,” she said.
The reports of hazing among Asian-American fraternities prompted Minh Tran, a director of curriculum and academic enrichment at U.C.L.A. School of Dentistry, to conduct his own field research in 2009. Tran, who had joined Lambda Phi Epsilon at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1997, was allowed to conduct focus groups at Asian-American fraternities on three California campuses after agreeing not to use names. Many members said they joined because they were looked at as nerds rather than leaders by non-Asians, and felt stereotyped as socially and athletically inferior to other men, he recalled.
Dr. Tran, 37, concluded that some men were taking hazing too far as “a form of hyper-masculinity.” Often, the hazing grew worse from year to year as members tried to outdo each, and the worsening reputation of their fraternities attracted what he called “lower quality recruits” who tended to perpetuate that behavior.
He added that there was inadequate oversight and support from national fraternity leaders, often recent graduates with little idea about what was going on in local chapters. Instead, these chapters relied on university-provided advising and support services, only to be cut off when they got in trouble and were suspended.
Kai Tan, the national president of Xi Kappa Fraternity, with 300 members at three campuses in Georgia and at one campus in Boston, said that his organization was working with college administrators and outside consultants; participating in workshops to prevent hazing, alcohol use and sexual assault; and offering support to local chapters. “We’re trying to show we want to be part of the movement away from what happened in the past,” Mr. Tan, 27, said.
He said that Xi Kappa’s “new member education process” — the term “pledging” is no longer used — focused on shared cultural identity through rituals such as the “privilege walk,” in which students line up and either take steps backward or forward, depending on successes or setbacks, such as whether their parents could vote, or whether they were racially profiled. Other activities, such as résumé workshops, emphasize personal growth.
Justine Chang, 20, a member of Sigma Phi Omega at the University of California, Berkeley, said that more Asian-American fraternities and sororities needed to have frank discussions about hazing problems and their recurrence. Too often, she said, no one wants to talk about the problem because students accept hazing as tradition, or think they could never run into a problem.
“When we hear about a horrible incident in the news, the immediate reaction for a lot of Asian Greeks is, ‘It’s a one in a million chance,’” she said. “That chapter did something that no one ever thinks would happen in their own chapter. But I think that’s a big mistake. A lot of the processes are similar. It could really happen anywhere.”
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