‘Nobody called 911’: what can be done to change the culture of hazing at US colleges?
The rate of perilous hazing incidents has ticked up at colleges across the country, and in many cases schools have limited power to stop it
Late on 19 October 2021, an 18-year-old University of Missouri student named Danny Santulli collapsed to the floor in the middle of a Tuesday night party – the latest victim of an apparent hazing ritual that had spiraled dangerously out of control.
Surveillance footage from the “pledge father reveal” party hosted by the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity revealed how Santulli was force-fed beer through a funnel in between guzzling a 1.75 liter bottle of vodka; after two hours of drinking, he lost his balance and keeled over backward. He was barely conscious when fraternity members dropped him again, while scrambling to carry him out a door to the hospital. There, attendants found him inside a car, not breathing and in cardiac arrest; his blood-alcohol level was at a near-fatal 0.46.
“They knew he was in distress and his lips were blue,” his mother, Mary Pat Santulli, told ABC News, referring to the many Phi Gamma Delta members who can be seen overlooking her son’s worsening condition, “and nobody called 911.”
Miraculously, Santulli escaped that fateful night with his life – but he suffered brain damage that has left him without the ability to walk, talk or see.
On 17 June, a grand jury indicted two men – the fraternity vice-president who supplied the vodka for the party, and another member who gave it to Santulli – with felony hazing. The Santulli family has settled lawsuits with 22 defendants and the fraternity. Meanwhile, Santulli’s tragic case has refreshed acute concerns about the dangers of hazing.
Over the past five years, the rate of perilous hazing incidents has ticked up at colleges across the country. Universities have responded with attempts to crackdown; in 2019, the University of Missouri introduced new rules to restrict access to alcohol and other behaviors that significantly influence hazing. But because Mizzou, like most schools, doesn’t own the multimillion-dollar mansions where fraternities and sororities are based, the job of keeping order falls to student-run watchdog groups, and hazing continues to flourish. Since 2000, a reported 101 students have died at American colleges from hazing incidents. So what, if anything, can be done to change the culture?
“Even the word hazing sounds so gentle,” says Laura Perino – a therapist whose son Tyler narrowly survived a hazing incident. “It’s abuse. It’s abuse of power, abuse of an individual physically and emotionally. In any other environment it would be called abuse.”
While commonplace on sports teams and in the military and even less physically demanding environments like restaurants and law firms, hazing is most closely associated with the Greek-letter student organizations that uphold a kind of popularity caste system at private colleges and public universities across the country.
Greek organizations predate the founding of the United States, with the academic honors society Phi Beta Kappa launching at the College of William and Mary in 1775. When colleges finally opened their doors to women 60 years later, female students formed sororities as a shield against institutional misogyny, while fraternities formed in response to the arch conservative rules on college campuses.
College hazing became prevalent in the early 1800s, with sophomores needling freshmen, according to the 2019 book Fraternity, which examines hazing through the lives of two students navigating this world. The practice increased in the late-1860s as students returned to campus from the trenches of the civil war, and became more alcohol-fueled after the second world war. These days it’s an extreme initiation process in which a group forces an individual to prove they belong by submitting to stressful, intimidating and humiliating rituals that establish and reinforce the pecking order. Everyone participates; no one claims responsibility.
As higher education has mushroomed into a half trillion-dollar business, college hazing has taken a sadistic turn. Blindfolded gauntlets, tests of strength, cruel mind games, cattle branding – these are all features of college hazing; all the while, deaths from hazing have leapt from about one a year from 1969 to 2000 to 2.5 a year over the last two decades. And nearly all of those incidents tie back to excessive drinking at a fraternity. “Part of being a Greek life member is learning how to tolerate large amounts of alcohol,” says Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who has studied hazing for the better part of two decades, “as if this would make you a better person and not a better alcoholic.” Greek life in particular has done much to entrench hazing as a critical rite of passage where lifelong bonds are not only forged, but also shape future careers.
In 1980, a University of South Carolina student named Barry Ballou died from choking on his vomit after passing out from ingesting massive amounts of alcohol at a party hosted by Sigma Nu – a military-based fraternity that promotes values like love, truth and honor; like Santulli, Ballou was left face down and unconscious on a couch for more than an hour.
In 2019 a transfer student named Tyler Perino pledged to the Delta Tau Delta fraternity at the Miami University in Ohio in hopes of making friends. But at a surprise initiation party, Perino was blindfolded, subjected to verbal abuse, force-fed drugs and excessive amounts of alcohol and repeatedly struck on his bare bottom with a paddle. Later that night, his girlfriend found him face down in his dorm room bed, drifting in and out of consciousness and choking on his own vomit. Her 911 call likely saved his life.
Perino made a full physical recovery, but he still struggles emotionally and relies on antidepressants and counseling to manage PTSD. After the hazing incident, Perino transferred again to the University of Toledo, where he is one semester away from earning his degree with a major in psychology and a minor in forensic science investigations; call it his way of pursuing the justice he never saw at Miami, where most perpetrators were handed $100 fines after the university slapped Delta Tau Delta with a potential 15-year ban. He no longer drinks or parties. He works at his dad’s painting business and at the local state prison. “It’s similar to a fraternity,” Perino tells the Guardian. “You definitely have the overseers, the top dogs. There’s definitely a similar kind of pyramid, for sure.”
Perino says he hopes fraternities’ hazing problem will get better. “But it’s gonna be difficult. Most of the kids who join, not all, would like to have some sort of power. What happens is when you give kids that power, all it takes is one bad apple to make a bad decision for people to become accustomed to it.”
Santulli’s hospitalization triggered a mass student protest and a permanent ban for Phi Gamma Delta at Mizzou. Missouri is one of 44 states that have laws against hazing, but only 10 explicitly make it a felony in the event of death or serious injury. After an Ohio State student died in a 2018 hazing ritual, the state passed Collin’s Law, which further requires university stewards to immediately report such incidents. Still, because the Clery Act exempts hazing from the student offenses colleges are required to report to the Department of Education, students and parents have little information with which to make informed decisions.
“Just across the board, I’d like to see more transparency in the history of offenses,” says Laura Perino – who, in Tyler’s case, could only take the word of a Greek life student rep during a campus orientation. “They said, ‘there are fraternities that go rogue, ones that pop-up that shouldn’t. So go with a campus-sponsored one.’ So when Tyler told us that he wanted to join a fraternity to meet friends, we said ‘Ok, as long as it’s a school-sponsored one.’”
After a 19-year-old Penn State student died from a fractured skull and lacerated spleen during a 2018 fraternity initiation incident that involved him downing 18 drinks in 82 minutes, Penn State president Eric Barron vowed to put a permanent end to hazing and began regularly meeting with peers around the country to combat the issue. But here’s the paradox for school administrators: the headaches that Greek life organizations create with hazing aren’t nearly as urgent as chronic pains they solve – like student housing and fundraising. It’s a lot easier to compel alumni to come back to campus or donate money when they have a place they can call home where they can drink alongside the new generation.
In 2005 Lipkins, the psychologist who studies hazing, visited Capitol Hill in hopes of cultivating interest around a national hazing prevention bill that would regulate fraternities and fund research and intervention efforts. But while walking the halls of power and meeting with lawmakers, suddenly, it dawned on her: many of them not only belonged to Greek organizations, but had kids who pledged as well. “That’s when I realized how unlikely it was that the government would address this issue.”