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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Fraternities under fire after New York hazing fatality

Published: March 7, 2014
Section: News

Two months after a student at Baruch College died during a fraternity ritual, New York state lawmakers are pushing forward a bicameral bill to educate students about hazing and impose harsher punishments for it.

19-year-old finance major Chun Hsien Deng, known as Michael, died in Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 9 after being hazed during a Pi Delta Psi event in a rented home in Tunkhannock Township, Pennsylvania. As part of the ritual, Deng, in addition to three other initiates, ran a gauntlet between members of the fraternity while blindfolded and carrying 20 pounds of sand in the freezing snow as members attempted to tackle them. During the ritual he fell back and hit his head and went unconscious. Before his fraternity brothers searched for professional treatment they changed his freezing wet clothes, placed him by a fire and looked up his symptoms on Google. They brought him to a hospital, approximately 30 minutes away, 90 minutes after the initial fall. He was ruled brain dead by doctors and placed on life support before dying in the morning. The death has since been ruled a homicide by a Pennsylvania coroner from “closed head injuries due to blunt force trauma.” Although police discovered marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms in the house, no substances, including alcohol, were found in Deng’s system.

The Pocono Record reported that police found “a photocopied document related to moral problems with torture” in the house but that “the cryptic document on torture was not explained further.”

The fraternity has since been banned from Baruch College, a part of the City University of New York located in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. The college enrolls nearly 13,000 undergraduates and 3,300 graduate students. It is home to the largest business school in the nation, the Zicklin School of Business.

The school will conduct its own review that may lead to disciplinary action. The College did not know about the fraternity’s gathering or that they were rushing a pledge class. School President Mitchel Wallerstein has said that some of the 30 students at the initiation have not been cooperating. The District Attorney of Monroe County, the location of the rented home, plans to file criminal charges. The New York Daily News stated that charges could range from reckless endangerment to manslaughter.

Charges may stem from the fraternity’s attempt to cover up the true cause of death and impeding medical treatment. The three members that accompanied Deng to the hospital told the hospital that his injury was sustained by wrestling in the snow. While at the hospital, one member called members at the house and told them to get rid of all items related to the fraternity. Some of the students initially refused to answer questions from investigators but later cooperated.

In speaking about the fraternity members’ delay in bringing Deng to the hospital, a Baruch student stated “in those two hours at the hospital, he could have possible [sic] been saved. He wouldn’t have to go on the life support,” reported NY1 News.

Pi Delta Psi is an Asian-American cultural fraternity founded in 1994 at Binghamton University. It has 1,500 members throughout its 30 chapters, and the Baruch chapter was chartered in 2010. Pi Delta Psi, which bans hazing, has since revoked the chapter’s affiliation. The fraternity will conduct an investigation of the incident. They have suspended all member education nationwide indefinitely.

Andy Meng, National Executive President of Pi Delta Psi told NBC News, “Our early understanding is that this incident occurred at an unsanctioned event that was strictly prohibited by our organization.”

David Weprin, Democratic member of the New York State Assembly has introduced legislation with Republican Kenneth LaValle representing the New York State Senate in the State Legislature. The bill, titled “Michael’s Law,” if put into effect, would prohibit all physical conduct during fraternity pledging. The punishment for hazing will remain the same as a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. In addition to hazing in Greek life, the bill will apply to any organization that has access to college facilities, including athletic teams. Schools will be required to adopt rules prohibiting hazing, underage drinking and drug use in such groups as well as provide incoming students with information about the restrictions.

Weprin told WCBS 880 that the ritual’s intent “may not be to cause physical injury, but once you’re dealing with physical contact, you don’t know where it’s going to end up.”

Bloomberg News reported that a federal anti-hazing law was proposed last year but received too much opposition from the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee which represents the interests of Greek organizations in Washington, D.C.

Bloomberg News reported that there have been 59 fatalities from fraternity incidents since 2005 and six incidents that resulted in paralysis as well as numerous lesser injuries. Other hazing incidents around the country have made headlines recently, including a deadly beating of a student during a marching band ritual at Florida A&M University that resulted in 15 students being charged with manslaughter or felony hazing. Research published in 2012 by the University of Maine found that 73 percent of social fraternity and sorority members experience hazing. 55 percent of students involved in clubs, teams and other organizations face hazing.

Membership and revenue of Greek organizations has continued to rise in recent years. While speaking about the popularity of Greek organizations, forensic psychologist Dr. Stephen Reich told CBS 2 News, “The need to be included is absolutely profound. Based upon the sense that ‘on my own, I’m not enough and, therefore, I need the social inclusion.’”

Deng was from the Oakland Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York. He graduated from the prestigious Bronx High School of Science in 2013 as a member of the bowling and handball teams.