Disturbingly similar cases of young men chugging lethal amounts of alcohol while pledging an unrecognized fraternity demonstrate, experts say, the difficulty in stopping behavior done in secret and beyond the realm of campus control.
Three days before 19-year-old University at Albany student Trevor Duffy died in November, 18-year-old Nolan Burch died inside a West Virginia University fraternity house. Police said both had been given bottles of liquor to drink while being initiated into groups that university officials said were not recognized on campus.
"When there is no relationship established with the school, that can make it exceptionally difficult to try to regulate that behavior," said Dr. Norm Pollard, who is on the board of directors at HazingPrevention.org, "because hazing is done in secret, it's done in basements of off-campus houses, so trying to identify where these underground fraternities are and how to regulate them and stop students from joining them is a very difficult task."
Duffy, a sophomore from the Bronx, drank a 60-ounce bottle of vodka, according to court papers. The Times Union of Albany reported this week that the documents were filed by two expelled students as part of their lawsuit in a bid to be allowed to return to campus.
Duffy's family also has served notice of its intention to file a $55 million wrongful death lawsuit against the University at Albany, the State University of New York and city of Albany.
In the case of Burch, Morgantown, West Virginia, police said his blood alcohol level was .493 percent, more than six times the legal limit for driving at the time of his death. A February criminal complaint said the freshman from suburban Buffalo was given a bottle of liquor as part of a ceremony and, after becoming highly intoxicated, was carried back to a fraternity house where he later died.
Two people have been charged with hazing and conspiracy to commit hazing.
As Albany police await toxicology reports in their investigation of Duffy's death, law enforcement officials said hazing investigations provide particular challenges, including reluctant witnesses, alcohol-clouded — or erased — memories and the fact that the behavior, at least initially, is voluntary.
"People are just socialized to believe that this is an accepted behavior and the only way you can be part of a fraternity or sorority," said David Perry, president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. "It's wrong. It's bad data on their hard drives in their heads."
Morgantown Police Chief Ed Preston said that even at a time when students are posting videos and photos and tweeting about an incident, there can be little sharing with police.
"There's a lot of, 'you have no business with this, it's our secret society and we're going to do what we want to do because it's our traditions, our rituals,' and there's nothing against having traditions and rituals, but some of those things are deadly or cause permanent injuries," he said.
"It's so tragic and so much hazing is normalized so when it escalates to where someone dies everyone takes notice," said University of Maine researcher Elizabeth Allen, "but there are many events that tend to lead up to that point that have been overlooked. We're trying through research to disrupt that chain of events."
Allan, president of Stop Hazing, has enlisted eight universities as part of an ongoing three-year study to evaluate hazing prevention techniques.
Preliminary findings are expected in June.