Fraternity Hazing and PTSD: Insiders Share Gory Details of Pledging Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho

Is fraternity hazing a rite of passage — or a form of abuse? (Photo: Flickr/opacity

From the outside, the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity house at Penn State University looks idyllic — a stone, Tudor-style mansion with a sprawling lot on a quiet off-campus street. But what goes on inside the house has been the subject of intense scrutiny since January, when a member, James Vivenzio, 21, informed police of an invitation-only Facebook page where KDR brothers regularly posted nude photos of intoxicated women, sometimes being sexually assaulted.

In May, Penn State rescinded the fraternity’s recognition on campus for three years, a reversal of the Interfraternity Council’s initial ruling, which said KDR could remain as long as members participated in sexual-assault-intervention training, among other measures to change the frat’s culture.

On June 4, the national headquarters of Kappa Delta Rho expelled from the fraternity 38 of the Penn State members involved in the Facebook scandal — and on June 9, a new chapter of the drama unfolded: Vivenzio filed suit against Penn State and Kappa Delta Rho, as well as the university’s Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association, claiming the fraternity’s intense hazing left him with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for which he was hospitalized earlier this year. Other alleged outcomes of the hazing include failing his freshman year, despite having been a “successful high school student,” the court documents state, and a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse.    

Vivenzio’s lawyers call the fraternity’s hazing “barbaric” and “life-threatening,” claiming pledges endured cigarette burns to the chest; forced consumption of copious amounts of hard alcohol and concoctions of hot sauce, liquor, cat food, and urine during “line-ups” in the frat house basement; and endless rounds of push-ups and wall-sits. At one point, pledges were forced to do push-ups on the basement floor, which was covered with garbage, broken glass, bleach, and cigarettes; one pledge, who was allergic to bleach, had to be given a shot of epinephrine. 

Two pledges were reportedly branded on the buttocks with hot clothes hangers.

James Vivenzio claims his fraternity’s extreme hazing left him with PTSD. (Photo: AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

And reputedly, backing out was not an option: When Vivenzio missed a line-up, a 6-foot-5 brother allegedly punched him in the face and body repeatedly without warning.

“You did not miss a line-up,” a Penn State KDR alumnus, who did not overlap with Vivenzio in the fraternity and wishes to remain anonymous, tells Yahoo Health. “If you missed a line-up, you were kicked out of the pledge class.”

Line-ups are one of the hallmarks of Penn State KDR hazing, becoming progressively more intense over the course of the pledging process, according to this KDR alumnus. “In the beginning of hazing, it would be primarily physical — push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks — with some verbal demeaning,” he explains. “They would just try to beat you down,” criticizing pledges’ intellect, appearance, and sexuality. “They would call you gay, say that you would never get laid,” the source says.

Another Penn State KDR brother — who was also in the chapter prior to Vivenzio’s tenure and also wishes to remain anonymous — confirms that the line-ups became increasingly severe. “At first, it would just be a little bit of yelling and push-ups,” he says. “It would be like a bad football practice.” But over a period of weeks, sometimes an entire semester, the hazing intensified, with the addition of “blue chairs” (the fraternity’s name for wall-sits), additional verbal abuse, excessive alcohol intake, and, eventually, forced consumption of concoctions of hot sauce, vinegar, milk, and, as one of the KDR alums later found out, urine. “The ultimate goal was to make you vomit,” he says, adding, “You had to drink milk and vinegar and then go on a three-mile run and do sprints up a hill.” 

“Hazing is a process — it’s not like a bullying event that happens once,” Susan Lipkins, author of Preventing Hazing, tells Yahoo Health. “There is a beginning, which is often mild and looks like fun, and then it ends in what they call ‘hell week,’ which is extreme.”

As hell week — the final week of pledging — approached, “the days would get longer, so you were at the house almost 16 to 20 hours per day with very little sleep,” the first KDR source says, adding that paddling began during these final days. He was once kept awake for 30 straight hours, during which he cleaned the frat house, performed push-ups, and drank more vomit-inducing mixtures. “The last day before I got in [to the fraternity], you’re running on no sleep, getting screamed at, you’re delirious,” the other brother adds. “You’re up at 4 in the morning doing 50 push-ups. That was probably the worst [part] — the combination of all that.”

Sleep deprivation aside, this KDR member claims that hazing was mostly just “fun.” “I had to dress up as a meatball and wander around a party,” he recalls. “Some would say that’s degrading, walking around with spaghetti and sauce all over you. But the party was the meatball — you were the center of attention.”  

The first KDR alum remembers the pledging process less fondly. One weekend, after he made fun of a brother, “I had to eat a dozen Oreo cookies covered in syrup, flour, chili powder, and any other condiments and sauces they could find in the kitchen,” he recalls. Each time he vomited, he was forced to do a headstand in the trashcan where he’d puked. “That was right before my breaking point,” he says.

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A few weeks before pledging ended, this KDR alum began to ask himself: “Is it worth it?” He went so far as to leave the house, but two of his fellow pledges chased after him. “They told me, ‘They’re just trying to break you, because they want the best of the best in the house,’ and to stick it out,” he says. So he did.

Similarly, Vivenzio “tried to flee numerous times,” according to court documents, but was always persuaded to return, after being promised that the hazing was almost over. When contacted for comment, counsel for the National Fraternity of Kappa Delta Rho declined, citing the active litigation.

This isn’t the first case claiming hazing has led to serious consequences. In 2009, a 21-year-old member of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity at Tulane University in New Orleans filed a federal lawsuit, saying hazing compelled him to take “unwise actions.” The student had recently pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, after a drinking-and-driving incident in which he struck and killed a pedestrian, leading to a five-year prison sentence.

Even so, one of the largest-ever studies of hazing suggests that emotional trauma is not, in fact, the norm. In a 2008 survey of more than 11,000 students at 53 college campuses, more than half of those involved in clubs, teams, and other campus organizations had experienced hazing; the practice was especially prevalent among the Greek community, with 73 percent of fraternity or sorority members citing incidences of hazing, often involving alcohol and sleep deprivation.

Interestingly, the students primarily reported positive outcomes, with nearly a third saying the rituals helped them feel a part of the group. According to Aldo Cimino, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara who has extensively studied hazing, a sense of bonding after hazing is common, at least anecdotally — and this may explain why so many people, especially men, are willing to endure such harsh treatment. “They want what’s at the other end of that dark tunnel: membership in a socially valued coalition,” he says. “You are accepted into an alliance of people that can help you advance your own interests, and that is to your ultimate betterment.”

Hazing may also serve a social purpose for its perpetrators, which may be the reason it has persisted for hundreds of years. (As early as the 1600s, hazing, then called “pennalism,” was used to groom underclassmen before they graduated from university.) “Hazing could effectively select out prospective members that are less committed to the group,” while establishing a power hierarchy for new members to follow, Cimino says. “Hazing can serve a social function and be wrong.”

Related: The UVA Rape Case: Could PTSD Be a Factor?

In the study, a small minority of the recruits did react negatively to the hazing: 11 percent said it left them feeling stressed, 4 percent reported difficulty sleeping, and 3 percent felt humiliated or degraded. Two percent even needed to see a medical professional after enduring the hazing, and 1 percent said they wanted to die afterward. “This survey suggests that a very, very small percentage of individuals experience any sort of negative mental health outcomes [from hazing],” Cimino tells Yahoo Health. “By and large, hazing is probably not traumatizing the masses, but that doesn’t mean it’s not traumatizing anyone.”

Vivenzio’s negative reaction may have stemmed from the fact that he wanted to leave. For him, the promise of membership wasn’t enough motivation to endure the hazing, potentially making the pledging experience more traumatic, says Cimino. And some people may simply be naturally more prone to PTSD — for example, those with a history of anxiety, depression, or previous trauma (such as bullying, car accidents, or abuse). “There could be a car accident, and out of four people in the car, only one will have PTSD,” Lipkins says. “There are often predisposing factors.”

The potential for PTSD also depends on the severity and nature of the hazing. “I did field work with a fraternity, and I watched them do their hazing,” Cimino says. “They had a lot of physical hazing — push-ups, various forms of calisthenics.” While the exercise component is “unpleasant,” he says, it may be the combination of physical exertion and mind games that results in trauma. “People are yelling at you. You might be intoxicated. The lights are low. You’re surrounded by all of these men who are intimidating you. So there’s a huge psychological aspect to the physical hazing.”  

In recent years, adds Lipkins, fraternities have increasingly incorporated sexual hazing, including sodomy, which is arguably the most traumatic of all initiation rituals. “The quickest way to humiliate you is to humiliate you in a sexual way,” she says. “[Sexual hazing] makes you feel totally helpless and exposed.”

“That was one thing that was pretty much established from the beginning of pledging — you would not be nude, and you would not be hazed sexually,” says the first KDR alumnus. “Did I have to wear a dress during a party? Yes. Is that sexual hazing? No.” As the second KDR source puts it, “We wanted no part of anything like that. Who knows what went on in other places, but for us, no way.”

Vivenzio didn’t report sexual hazing, but the rituals he endured were still enough to leave emotional scars and potentially cause PTSD, says Lipkins. “They do not tell you what’s going to happen, and if you ask specifically, ‘Are you going to burn me with a cigarette?’ they say, ‘Absolutely not.’ Then when it’s your turn, they burn you harder,” she says. “You never know what’s going to happen, and that creates anxiety. Anxiety is one of the elements of posttraumatic stress disorder.” The first KDR source confirms that being left in the dark was a key part of hazing. “A lot of it was mind games. You never knew when things were going to be over. You never knew when you were going to get in [to the fraternity]. You never knew what you were going to have to do next,” he says.

Similarly, the extreme humiliation involved can lead to depression, another hallmark of PTSD, as can the total loss of control. “If you protest the hazing, you will probably be hazed worse,” Lipkins says. “So you might as well just allow it to happen — you don’t have a choice.”

There’s also the fear of retaliation among pledges who protest the fraternity’s practices. Even though there are anti-hazing laws in 44 states and many universities have their own policies against the practice (Penn State included), “anybody who reports hazing is ostracized to the point that they pretty much always have to leave the university,” says Lipkins. “It’s almost certainly social suicide,” which undoubtedly contributes to the trauma of hazing. (In one case, Lipkins witnessed a police officer telling a hazing victim that he needed to leave the state, since former brothers would likely target him.)

In Lipkins’s view, hazing is always wrong — and the practice calls the entire Greek system into question. “Why are parents and kids paying $2,000 or $3,000 a year to participate in things that are harmful?” she asks. Unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle not likely to end anytime soon. “There’s something called a ‘blueprint of hazing,’” Lipkins says. “You’re a victim, you’re hazed, and the next year you’re a bystander, watching others get hazed. Then when you have senior status, it’s your turn — you do unto others what’s been done to you. It’s not like these people who haze are particularly different. They’re just simply passing on a tradition.”

The fraternity first sparked outrage for its Facebook page, as shown in this video.

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