SAN DIEGO — Colin Schlank says he was in the backseat of a speeding car with a blindfold over his eyes. Music was blasting as the vehicle swerved from side to side, slamming him against its windows.
It was his first night rushing Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity, at the University of Connecticut. He’d spent one semester as a freshman before deciding to join, hoping to expand his circle of friends.
Now he was scared and disoriented, wondering what he had gotten himself into.
Before pledging AEPi, Schlank said he had no misconceptions about what lay ahead: “I knew what Greek life was like. I knew about hazing.”
But he says the pitfalls of the initiation process got “really real” for him soon after fraternity brothers began berating him and his fellow pledges.
“I remember that one moment where I was like, ‘something isn’t right here,'” Schlank told CNN. “Here are the supposed leaders of the chapter, swearing in my face and treating me like an animal.”
While pledging in the spring of 2011, Schlank was shocked by what he claims to have seen and experienced: Heavy drinking, verbal abuse and humiliation.
Schlank says he never reported the alleged hazing to Alpha Epsilon Pi or UConn. Reached for comment, both the fraternity and university expressed zero tolerance for hazing practices.
Schlank’s not the only Greek life initiate who says he’s experienced hazing. A University of Maine study from 2008, the most recent year for which such research is available, found that 73% of students in fraternities and sororities experienced what they called some form of hazing at least once.
The issue of Greek hazing has come under particularly intense scrutiny after several pledges died in recent years as a result.
In February 2017, Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza, 19, died after drinking large quantities of alcohol in his first night of pledging at Beta Theta Pi fraternity, according to court documents.
In September, Louisiana State University freshman Maxwell Gruver died of alcohol poisoning after what officials said was a hazing ritual at Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
And Florida State University suspended all frats and sororities for two months after the November 2017 death of Pi Kappa Phi pledge Andrew Coffey, which has since been determined to have been due to hazing, according to police.
While the students interviewed for this story did not experience such egregious and deadly examples of hazing, experts told CNN that hazing is part of a vicious cycle whose rituals and practices initially seem relatively harmless but have the potential to evolve into more dangerous behavior.
With the dangers of hazing so evident, why would students voluntarily subject themselves to such potential abuse? Experts and former pledges contacted by CNN said the answer is more complicated than you might think.
Greek life has social benefits
There hasn’t been much “systematic” research into the motivations behind hazing, said Aldo Cimino, an anthropology lecturer at University of California, Santa Barbara, who has studied hazing extensively.
But for the student, suffering through hazing is a cost-benefit calculation, even if it’s made subconsciously.
The costs — temporary discomfort and humiliation — pale in comparison to the potential benefits, which include prestige, a more active social life and a social network that could help students later in life, Cimino said.
“You’re talking about an entire coalition of individuals who will support and advocate on your behalf,” he said, “potentially long after the initiation is over.”
The sense of belonging can be especially alluring for fresh-faced new students who are often on their own for the first time, experts say.
Fraternities and sororities offer an easy way to make friends in an unfamiliar environment, said Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College who has researched hazing for decades. “This collective need to belong is very, very strong,” he said.
Colin Schlank said he rushed a fraternity because he wanted to expand his social circle. Out of thousands of students at UConn, he had been hanging out with the same 15 people on campus and was looking “very much for that social enrichment, which I viewed as Greek life.”
“They’re called social fraternities for a reason,” he said, “because you’re trying to branch out, you’re trying to meet new people.”
When Jo Hannah Burch pledged a sorority at Young Harris College, a private liberal arts college in North Georgia, she too was looking to meet new people.
Greek life was very popular on campus, said Burch. Sororities and fraternities would do big chants on the lawn after their meetings. “It was this big thing,” Burch said. “It was like everyone was coming together.”
“That’s how you made more friends,” she added.
At first, hazing doesn’t seem that bad. Then it gets worse
Hazing typically begins mildly, said Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and the author of “Preventing Hazing.”
It could start out as something as harmless as being made to cross-dress, Lipkins said.
“So, everybody thinks, ‘Oh, that’s not so bad. I can handle that,'” she added. But soon the rituals become more intense.
When Burch was first seeking to join Gamma Psi, she says members told her there would be some hazing. But she believed the girls were kind and fun and would take care of the pledges.
“I thought that hazing was like going to Starbucks and getting a Frappuccino, or folding someone’s laundry,” she said.
At first, Burch says the hazing was minor. Pledges had to visit sorority members to learn about them, or study in the library. They had to carry a marble on their person at all times, and wear a ribbon on their backpack.
But it didn’t stay that way for long. About a week in, Burch says she was blindfolded and put in the back of a car, like Schlank. Marilyn Manson’s “This is the New S**t” blasted on the car’s stereo as Burch was driven to an unknown location in the woods.
There, in the middle of the night, the pledges were forced into a frigid creek, where they were made to do pushups and sit ups and crawl through the water, resulting in numerous bruises and cuts, Burch said.
The girls were screamed at, taunted and spit on. And while they were shivering from the cold, the sisters made the pledges build fires to warm themselves — only to have the sisters immediately put them out, Burch said. It went on for hours.
“It was a Jekyll and Hyde situation,” she said. “They turned into this different person.”
“I think back on that moment and I’ve never been so cold in my life. I hated that. I hated it.”
Unlike many sororities, the Gamma Psi sorority at Young Harris College is a local sorority, meaning it doesn’t answer to a national organization and exists under the purview of the school. It did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement sent to CNN, Young Harris College said it holds a “zero tolerance” policy towards hazing. Anyone found to be violating that policy would be “sanctioned appropriately,” the school said. It also said hazing education was a”priority” for the school, particularly for students in Greek life.
“The safety and well-being for all of our students is the highest importance to the College,” the statement said.
Cimino called hazing “fundamentally coercive,” and said it can cause hazees to eventually submit to behavior they wouldn’t normally be on board with.
Exacerbating the situation, he added, is the fact that hazing often entails sleep deprivation or excessive drinking, further diminishing hazees’ inhibitions. That’s when pledges start relenting and doing things outside their comfort zones, he said.
“They’re not in their right minds,” Cimino said. “People do all kinds of things that they regret when they are drunk. People make poor decisions when they are sleep-deprived. All of these things impact your ability to make good decisions.”
Excessive drinking played a role in the circumstances surrounding the death of Piazza, the Penn State student who was made to participate in a drinking game called “the gauntlet.”
“You basically just run through the house, and there’s stations of alcohol and you’re supposed to drink it as fast as you can,” Kordel Davis, a former Beta Theta Pi fraternity member, told CNN. “People are like yelling at you, encouraging you to drink as fast as you can.”
As part of the gauntlet, pledges had to pass a handle of vodka between each other until it was empty before drinking a beer, running upstairs, chugging from a bag of wine and going back downstairs for beer pong.
Fortunately for Schlank, he wasn’t made to drink against his will.
“Sleep-deprivation was the go-to,” Schlank said of his experience. He would often be woken in the middle of the night with his fellow pledges to roam the campus, painting rocks, even if they had classes early the next day. “Kids were falling asleep in class.”
And while Schlank was never forced to drink, he said he did attend events where that was the expectation, and says he was made to feel like “the weird one” when he chose not to.
At a certain point, even if pledges are uncomfortable with what they’ve seen or experienced, it feels too late to back out.
“You’re stuck,” says Lipkins.
Nuwer calls it a “bait and switch” affair.
“Once they are involved and put a couple weeks in, they don’t want to pull out at that particular point,” he said. “And part of it is intimidation.”
Peer pressure makes it hard to back out
Despite his growing concerns, Schlank continued to rush Alpha Epsilon Pi and was eventually made a full member, though he made his distaste for hazing known to his chapter brothers, he said.
Although he couldn’t be kicked out of the organization for that, he said some of his fraternity brothers ostracized him, and made him feel like an outcast. Schlank would walk into a room full of brothers, and no one would acknowledge him.
“They would literally turn their backs on me,” he said.
One semester, when he protested hazing new pledges, Schlank said a brother told him, “You are a cancer to this organization.”
It was the consequence pledges and members fear most.
“Your social relationships are impacted,” he said. “You stand alone. Your whole life is impacted by it.”
Lipkins said Schlank’s experience is typical of those who speak out against hazing.”You’re completely isolated socially and, frequently, run off campus,” she said. “The peer pressure and the retribution is so extreme that it maintains the status quo.”
“That’s what people need to understand,” Schlank said. “When they ask why hazing still happens, it’s because that power of peer pressure is intense.”
Although Schlank never reported allegations of hazing to Alpha Epsilon Pi, the fraternity’s national spokesman Jonathan Pierce, told CNN it takes “any and all reports of hazing at our chapters very seriously and we look into each.” The fraternity also endeavors to educate chapter leaders about the fraternity’s hazing policies, he said.
UConn said it was unable to address Schlank’s experience, citing laws preventing it from commenting on individual students. Still, the school expressed a “zero tolerance policy” to hazing. It also conducts mandatory hazing prevention programs for members of Greek life.
“Hazing of any kind has no place on our campuses,” the school said.
Burch told her fellow pledges several times that she wanted to quit. But they would encourage her to stay, to talk to other people in the sorority who said the end result would be worth it. She chose to stay to support her fellow pledges.
“They keep saying, ‘It’s going to be great in the end,'” she said.
Nuwer says this peer pressure leads to “groupthink,” in which decisions are made collectively and individuality or questioning of the group is discouraged. Individuals go along with questionable behavior because they don’t want to upset the status quo, he said.
Cimino’s research suggests groups may haze in an effort to be sure newcomers don’t reap the benefits without contributing. In the process, they make initiates “fear doing things that are not in the interest of veteran members.”
“They are creating this environment of fear,” he says.
That environment became a reality for Burch when she quit rushing after several weeks and reported the hazing to school officials. When the sorority sisters found out she’d blown the whistle, she says the backlash was harsh.
Everyone on campus knew she had brought the hazing to the attention of the school, Burch said, and everywhere she went, she received glares. Once, she recalled, girls from the sorority mocked her in class, saying, “Look who decided to show up today, after what she did.”
“It frightened me,” she said. The backlash she received after reporting the hazing left her paranoid, anxious and depressed.
She was afraid to leave her dorm room, and refused to eat in the cafeteria, where she might run into others. She wasn’t sleeping, she wasn’t eating and her grades were dropping.
“I thought I was still going to get hazed, or they would kidnap me and haze me,” Burch said.
Burch did not file a police report, but she eventually joined a lawsuit by two former college faculty members who alleged they were retaliated against for taking a stand against hazing. The lawsuit details Burch’s account of her experience with the sorority. A federal judge ultimately dismissed the case in favor of Young Harris College.
Young Harris College also suspended Gamma Psi for one year after the allegations came to light.
It’s a cycle that’s difficult to break
Although pledges might suffer during the hazing process, eventually the tables turn.
When the next pledge class arrives, the former victims inevitably become the perpetrators, continuing what the group sees as tradition.
“It was always the pledge class that just came out that was gung-ho hazing,” said Schlank, “because they had just experienced it.”
After Schlank appeared on a national news segment on Al-Jazeera America to discuss hazing, he says he received a letter from his fraternity in 2014 notifying him his name was submitted for expulsion, though the letter did not provide a reason.
The expulsion was never carried out, but Schlank claims the letter stemmed from his speaking out about hazing.
Reached for comment, the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity did not confirm the letter, but said Schlank was an alumnus “in good standing,” and never made any reports of alleged hazing to the fraternity’s International Office.
Burch said she would never “in a clear mind” haze anyone, but she understands how others get to that point. In the moment, “you’re pissed off,” she said.
She remembers her fellow pledges talking amongst themselves about what they would do when it was their turn to haze, particularly one girl who had been especially picked on.
“She was so ready for the next semester,” Burch said, “to do this to other people.”
The new members feel they have a right to inflict the same pain on the new initiates because of what they went through, said Lipkins.
Each semester, a fresh group of hazers makes the rituals more intense, Lipkins said, continuing a vicious cycle of what they believe to be the group’s traditions.
By forcing pledges to experience abuse similar to their own, Lipkins believes new members are “retrieving the piece of themselves that was lost when they were hazed.”
“They have lost a piece of their self-image and their self-esteem and now when they become powerful, they do unto others.”
Burch eventually left Young Harris College and transferred to another school, where she had a great college experience, she said. Now she can’t imagine what she was thinking.
“I think back on it,” Burch said, “and I think, ‘Gosh, what was it that was so worth it?’ In the end … you get your sister? You’re a part of this group?”
“In the end, you get to do this to someone else?”