US college society bans ritual after 52 deaths
One of America's oldest and largest college fraternities is to ban the initiation ritual known as 'hazing' after a series of deaths and injuries among young students.
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity will attempt to eliminate the notoriously humiliating and sometimes dangerous practice foisted on newcomers among its 14,000 members at colleges in the US.
At least 52 members of different fraternities have died from hazing or fraternity-related incidents in America since 2005, 10 of them at SAE, making it the deadliest.
Undergraduate fraternity societies are associated with binge drinking and rowdy parties, but also with rituals for incoming students.
Extreme examples include waterboarding, forced eating of cat food or raw chicken, mock kidnaps and beatings, holding hot coals, and students made to recite oaths while standing waist-deep in ice cubes and being hosed down.
The 1978 film 'Animal House' made the excesses of fraternities famous, with drunken toga parties, orgies and pranks. But observers of the culture believe the behaviour of 'frat boys' has become even more debauched and dangerous in recent times.
An SAE spokesman did not deny that as many as 10 of its members had died during fraternity-related activities since 2005.
"We acknowledge that we have had an unfortunate and regrettable number of incidents and deaths that are tied to Sigma Alpha Epsilon," said fraternity spokesman Brandon Weghorst.
He said the fraternity was specifically banning the practice of putting prospective members through the stage known as pledging – a sort of apprenticeship accompanied by rituals that often escalate unchecked into violent 'hazing'.
"We hope to lead the way for other fraternities," said Mr Weghorst.
Hazing is illegal in 44 US states, but is often difficult to prove and hard to stamp out.
Experts in the US praised SAE's surprise announcement to ban pledging as "a game-changer".
"I applaud this bold first step – now we must see how they implement it, because that will not be easy," said Mark Koepsell of the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisers.
Many deaths occur after fraternity house parties, as well as during pledging.
In 2011, George Desdunes, a student at Cornell University, New York, died after SAE recruits kidnapped him, blindfolded and tied him up, then forced him to drink copiously.
The three kidnappers were cleared of all wrongdoing. (© Daily Telegraph, London)