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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Dying to Belong. It’s a Greek Tragedy!

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Joining a fraternity has its social and academic purposes, but its greatest purposes are life-long friendships, leadership opportunities and connections that will help you in the future. Part of the initiation process is pledging. Unfortunately, sometimes the pledge process is dangerous and it can sometimes be fatal.

When fraternities begin accepting new pledges at the beginning of the school year there is a period of time known as haze week. Where once thought of as an innocent bonding ritual, hazing has become serious enough to cause injuries and deaths each year.

Last September, 19-year-old Tucker Hipps was a pledge of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at Clemson University in South Carolina. On September 22, he fell to his death from a bridge. An autopsy concluded that Tucker died of “blunt force trauma” consistent with a headfirst fall. A toxicology report found no signs of alcohol or drugs.

For months, the criminal investigation into his death was at a standstill as officials were unable to determine exactly what happened. In the meantime, Tucker’s parents, filed two $25 million lawsuits – a wrongful death claim against Clemson University, the national fraternity, and three Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity members, and then a personal injury suit against one of the fraternity brothers. The lawsuits allege that Tucker was the victim of a harassing hazing incident during a pre-dawn pledge run and that fraternity brothers attempted to cover up their role in his death by deleting text messages, cellphone calls and – in one case – changing phone numbers. The lawsuit never made specific allegations as to how the young man ended up in the water, and fraternity brothers provide little information other than denials of involvement. The lawsuits also alleged that one of the three fraternity brothers was involved in a confrontation with Tucker for not providing a McDonalds’ breakfast for 27 pledges, shortly before the teen went over the bridge. The defendants deny any responsibility and said Tucker was responsible for his own death when he “voluntarily jumped into the water.” The university’s former Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter has filed a motion to dismiss the case because the chapter had been dissolved prior to filing of the lawsuit.

Until now, there was no official account of how he ended up in the lake. Ten months after the tragic accident, a witness has come forward with new details. According to court documents, the fatality happened during an act of hazing when Tucker was forced to walk a narrow bridge railing. After he slipped and fell, Tucker tried to climb back onto the bridge, but “lost his grip and fell headfirst into the water below, striking his head on the rocks in the shallow water.” Although fraternity brothers were nearby, no one tried to rescue him. In fact, no one called campus police until seven hours later. Based on the latest information, the family is requesting an amendment to their lawsuit to include the new details.

Tucker’s parents said the two lawsuits are not about seeking monetary compensation; it’s about finding the truth and to make changes in the culture of hazing by fraternities.

There have been over 60 fraternity-related deaths throughout the country since 2005. Many of the victims were freshman pledges, the fraternity members most vulnerable to peer pressure. There is no justifiable reason for hazing. Hazing is dangerous physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially. Members of fraternities described pledging as essential to building meaningful bonds within the group. How does hazing, harassment, and humiliation to the point of serious injuries or death build character and lasting friendships? In order for hazing to stop, it will require significant effort from the colleges, the fraternities, and the pledges. Colleges and universities can play a critical role in ending hazing on campus. It is important for universities to educate students, especially fraternity members and pledges, on alternatives to hazing that help promote group cohesiveness while not harming or humiliating new members. Schools should also have a clearly stated policy against hazing, including consequences for failing to abide by policy. Education, awareness, and trusting your instincts are the only effective weapons against hazing. Investigate a fraternity before you join, to prevent becoming another statistic. If you are part of a group or organization that wants to haze, don’t participate. If you do find yourself in a hazing situation, don’t hesitate to speak up to the organization’s national office and your campus’ police department.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.