Three years ago, the troubled fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon found itself in perilous financial straits, crippled by mounting insurance costs related to dangerous behavior at chapters on college campuses around the country.
Its national leaders responded with a damage-control campaign that included a series of online seminars with local members that aired the organization’s dirty laundry: a string of disastrous incidents that caused an alarming spike in risk-management fees.
The list included the deaths of three pledges, a fatal drunk-driving accident, member killed by a car after passing out drunk in the street, and serious injuries to female party guests.
The fraternity’s general counsel, Frank Ginocchio, said in one of the 2012 sessions that many chapters were probably engaged in the same kind of risky behavior that led to those horrific cases.
“There’s only one difference. And that difference is, you’ve been lucky so far,” Ginocchio said, according to a video copy of the seminar provided to NBC News.
That sense of urgency has not faded much in the years since. Although SAE has implemented some sweeping reforms, it continues to struggle with issues related to binge drinking, hazing, sexual assault and, most recently racism.
Last weekend, SAE closed its chapter at Oklahoma University within hours of the emergence of a video that showed members participating in a racist chant. The university expelled two students it said had leadership roles in the incident. One student seen on the video apologized and the parents of a second said their son made a “horrible mistake.”
SAE’s national officers are now investigating claims of similar chants at other chapters and looking to expand its training and education programs. Spokesman Brandon Weghorst said the chant did not appear to be widespread, but the 159-year-old fraternity was taking responsibility for its problems.
“We realize and own up to the fact that SAE has had a number of incidents, and things continue to surface,” Weghorst said. He added, “We know SAE can do a better job.”
Forced by legal action and pressure from the media, SAE has made several prior moves toward reform. It is the only large national fraternity that posts online a list of more than 130 health-and-safety incidents” since 2010 online, the result of a spring 2011 settlement with the family of a pledge who died in hazing ritual at an SEA chapter at California Polytechnic University. In March 2014, SAE imposed a ban on pledging, weeks after an investigation by Bloomberg documented at least 10 deaths since 2006 linked to hazing, alcohol or drugs at SAE events. The report named SAE America’s “Deadliest Frat.”
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