Texas' New Approach Tames Animal House Frats

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Four years ago this month, Tyler Cross, a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity pledge at the University of Texas fell five stories from a dorm room window, dying upon impact. He was 18 years old and had a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit.

The previous year, a Lambada Phi Epsilon pledge, Phanta "Jack" Phoummarath was found dead, with an alcohol blood level of 0.41.

Law enforcement and university officials labeled both tragedies, while unintentional, a result of hazing.

The umbrella of hazing includes not only drinking in excess, but many things students may not normally consider - personal servitude, partial nudity, calisthenics, eating contests, uncomfortable clothes, to name a few.

At UT, administrators and student organizations are working together to educate groups on how to run and develop their clubs and groups in a safe way.

This fall is the second full year for the "mutual agreement program," which begins after a fraternity, sorority or other university organization has violated the state's anti-hazing law. The program establishes a process, a sort of probationary period, during which the organization is reevaluated, its members educated and it's brought back into compliance without suffering severe penalties.

So far, 19 organizations have entered into this program, which was developed under the instruction of University President Bill Powers, who took office in 2006, the year Cross died.

"Before, if an organization violated our hazing rules, they were forced off campus and basically cut off until they improved things," said Mary Beth Mercatoris, UT's Assistant Dean of Students. "With the change in leadership, it was decided that instead of simply casting out the organizations, we would actively work with them to make them better."

Students are feeling the program's impact.

"I feel like a conscious effort is being made to [make all organizations] aware of the dangers of hazing," said junior Rachel Schultz, the event chair for Zeta Tau Alpha. "Earlier this year, we all signed a hazing agreement and were shown a video detailing some of the tragedies that have occurred recently at other universities, and we aren't even one of the organizations in trouble."

"It Really Opened Our Eyes"

Andrew Schnitker, 2009-2010 president of the UT's Sigma Chi fraternity, said working with administrators provided him and his fraternity with a clear set of goals.

Sigma Chi was kicked off campus in 2004 for a series of hazing incidents, including forcing pledges to over-eat and drink and locking them in tight spaces, Schnitker said. In 2007, when the new program was established, the fraternity was brought back to campus.

Schnitker and other Sigma Chi leaders had weekly meetings with an advisor in the Dean of Student's office, which he said were vital in building a positive bond with the university. Schnitker and Sigma Chi were required to document almost all of their activities, including recruitment, events and parties, and had to constantly submit and update safety forms, insurance documents and fire code/occupancy permits.

"Having that daily or weekly contact with the Dean of Student's office and constantly reviewing forms and updating permits, it really opened our eyes to the proper way to run an organization and the pitfalls many could fall into," he said. "Our advisors were good about not only answering my questions, but discussing with us the reasons why they needed documentation for everything -- because it was for our own safety."

The process helped Sigma Chi develop new, healthy traditions and shed many of the old practices that occurred before the organization was kicked off campus.

"Paddling is a major thing that has changed for us," Schnitker said. "We don't give out swats any more. We get paddles, but they are trophies and memorabilia only -- things to hang on the wall."

Mercatoris is unaware of any other universities utilizing Texas' mutual agreement program but said she has spoken about the advantages of the program at conferences around the state.

Schnitker and Schultz said they have seen how easy it is for hazing to get out of hand when actions thought to be tradition lose their original intent. Long-thought of traditions such as paddling, celebratory drinking and forced cleaning of rooms and homes are defined as hazing under school rules.

Preserving Traditions

"A tradition means there was a precedent set at some point, but those things can get lost as the years go by," Schultz said. "We [as organizations] need to find ways to preserve our traditions in a safe way."

Mercatoris said many students aren't remotely aware of the breadth of activities that fall under hazing rules. But, she said, for those groups she does work with in the mutual agreement, the education they receive is invaluable.

"I've seen the students begin to take their own initiative, looking to make their own changes and revaluating their organizations without our help," said Mercatoris.

ABCNews.com contributor Travis Measley is a member of the ABC News on Campus program in Austin, Texas.

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