Sigma Alpha Epsilon Has Worried About Frat House Culture for Years

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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."

SAE's national board has also tried to ban alcohol at its fraternity houses, a reform which has been proven to reduce the rate of injuries at other frat houses. But the proposal twice failed to earn a two-thirds vote of students and alumni. There are no plans to try again, Weghorst said.

The fraternity has also developed an ambitious set of online and in-person training programs to address hazing, sex assault, underage drinking and codes of conduct. Hundreds of members take the classes a year, Weghorst said.

But those reform efforts have done little to rid SAE of its reputation as a rogue fraternity, or quell its worries about its future.

Top SAE officer Ken Tracey raised the issue in the 2012 online seminar, when he said the fraternity had developed a reputation that trouble was part of its DNA. “I don’t want to believe that," Tracey told the chapter representatives. "But SAE has had more bad incidents than any other fraternity, our insurance rates are higher than any other fraternity, and if we don’t do anything about it, we’re going to price ourselves out of business."

Asked whether those concerns have receded, Weghorst said, "I would describe it as the same immediate sense of urgency."

"The only way for people to understand the depth of the risk of injury is to guess."

Washington D.C. lawyer Douglas Fierberg is skeptical of SAE's attempts to reform itself. He negotiated the settlement on behalf of the dead Cal Poly pledge, Carson Starkey, and shared a copy of the 2012 seminar with NBC News. He pointed out that the seminar included predictions of sharply rising risk-management fees, and compared SAE's fees to those at other large national fraternities.

Fierberg argues that the seminar shows that all big national fraternities, which buy insurance together, share detailed information on dangerous incidents at their chapters. He's fighting to get them to disclose those incidents, just as he forced SAE to do.

"If you go to any other fraternity, you're not going to see that," Fierberg said. "The only way for people to understand the depth of the risk of injury is to guess."

Mark Koepsell, executive director of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, said he understood the benefits of sharing the data. But he said he also worried about individual chapters getting unfairly tagged as dangerous on the basis of what might be an isolated incident. "There's always more to a story," he said.

Another skeptic is John Foubert, a professor at Oklahoma State University and an SAE alumni. He authored a widely-cited study that showed fraternity members are three times as likely to commit rape than non-fraternity men, and is considered an expert on campus sex assault.

Foubert acknowledged that SAE has become quick to discipline and shut down unruly chapters. "But I don't think SAE is doing nearly enough to address behavioral problems," Foubert said.

"They're primarily looking at it as a PR issue, and as a potential legal liability, rather than what's best for the people in the chapters and the people on the campuses."

Foubert questioned whether SAE would survive.

So did Koepsell. He said he was impressed with the speed at which SAE had acted in response to recent events. But he wondered if failing to do enough earlier may have put the fraternity on a path to its undoing.

"I think every fraternity needs to be watching and learning from this," he said.

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