The family of a freshman whose hazing by the Phi Delta Theta fraternity last November sent him to the hospital has filed suit alleging that University of Arkansas administration officials knew about alcohol abuse at the fraternity house and did nothing to stop it.
The suit cites e-mails between the university and fraternity about alcohol-related incidents.
Nicholas Brown, the student; his parents Douglas and Rebecca Brown; and his sister January Brown are suing the state chapter of Phi Delta Theta, its national organization, three employees of the university and members of the fraternity. The suit was filed Monday in Pulaski Circuit Court.
The suit also alleges that the punishment meted to the fraternity — the fraternity’s campus activity was suspended indefinitely, but the organization is working its way back to reinstatement — was light and stemmed from the millions of dollars in donations and housing payments that fraternities bring to the UA.
The suit was also filed against the university with the Arkansas State Claims Commission.
According to the complaint, on Nov. 12, 2009, Nicholas Brown, a pledge of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, was instructed to go to the fraternity house and report to the basement, a room the brothers called “The Dungeon” because it had no video surveillance cameras or windows, and to bring his “hoodwink,” a pillowcase that would serve as a blindfold.
A few hours later, he was admitted to Washington Regional Medical Center, where he experienced tonic-clonic seizures and acute respiratory failure before slipping into a coma. His blood alcohol level was .68, more than eight times the legal limit.
In the time in between, the complaint says Brown was abused verbally and physically and forced to drink copious amounts of whiskey and beer while the “big brothers” of the fraternity placed bets on which of the pledges could drink the most.
Some time around 11:40 p.m., Brown stumbled out of the house and passed out on the sidewalk behind the fraternity house. A group of students found him and answered his ringing cell phone. His girlfriend, who was on the other end, hurried to pick Brown up and an ambulance was called.
Brown was in a coma for a time, but eventually recovered, something his doctors considered unusual. The Phi Delta Theta fraternity is on its way to being reinstated. About thirty freshmen and sophomores are currently living in the house on campus.
Ryan Allen, a Little Rock attorney who represents Brown, says the suit is about something bigger than one isolated hazing incident. Allen said the e-mail correspondence between the fraternity and the university was “just amazing. It’s basically about how the university officials were in cahoots with the Phi Delts the whole time and it’s all based on money and the big donations the Phi Deltas give every year.”
E-mails show that Parice Bowser, the coordinator of Greek Life for the university, had knowledge that the Phi Delta fraternity was violating the school’s, and the fraternity’s own, alcohol policies.
An e-mail sent to Bowser from Matthew Mills, with the university police department, in September 2009 says that one of the fraternity’s party marshals was doing shots at a supposedly alcohol-free party. The university’s police department provided security for the fraternity parties and officers consistently witnessed students drinking, the complaint says.
Allen says previous alcohol-related incidents at the fraternity house should have prompted more action from the school.
The complaint alleges that in the wake of the November 2009 incident, “the university and the national fraternity were only concerned about protecting alumni donations and the yearly fees” paid by the fraternity and “in an effort to keep housing revenue uninterrupted from the Phi Delta Theta house, agreed to allow freshmen pledges to live in the fraternity house to kick start the new chapter.”
An e-mail from Danny Pugh, vice president for student affairs at U of A, to Chancellor David Gearhart and others says “if current residents of the house are released, they would be required to move in to University Housing per their existing contract. As such, any possibility of first year students moving in would be a one-for-one swap that conceptually would be revenue neutral to the chapter and University Housing.” Pugh also discusses the university’s “universal commitment to the chapter and the potential for an immediate re-colonization option” for existing members of the pledge class. In another e-mail from Pugh, he reminds Bowser, “One last note … We have a PDT alum as Trustee!”
The complaint alleges negligence and gross negligence, assault and battery, among other charges. Bob Biggs, executive vice president for Phi Delta Theta International Fraternity, had no comment on the merits of the suit.
John Diamond, Associate Vice Chancellor at the University of Arkansas, said in a statement, “In response to a lawsuit filed by Nicholas Brown in Little Rock yesterday, the University of Arkansas strongly disagrees with the allegations asserted against three University officials. The University has policies in place to promote responsible behavior by its students, and its officials take appropriate action against those who violate such policies. The allegations against the University officials are unfounded, and we are confident that they will be dismissed. Given that this matter is now in court, it’s appropriate at this time for us to refrain from any further comment outside of the judicial process.”