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Pitt's Sigma Chi chapter fourth across nation to be sanctioned in past 3 months

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018, 10:34 a.m.
The Sigma Chi fraternity chapter at the University of Pittsburgh is under suspension for an alcohol-related incident involving a student.
Ben Schmitt / Tribune-Review
The Sigma Chi fraternity chapter at the University of Pittsburgh is under suspension for an alcohol-related incident involving a student.

A University of Pittsburgh fraternity, cited in the hospitalization of a Pitt student for alcohol poisoning last week, is the fourth Sigma Chi fraternity branch to be suspended or shuttered in the past three months.

The Pitt incident happened days after Sigma Chi , one of the nation's oldest and largest fraternities made famous in "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi," adopted five new policies to tackle alcohol abuse and hazing at chapters nationwide.

Pitt officials , who initially refused to identify the fraternity, Thursday released a statement saying the school and campus police are investigating the incident.

It occurred at an off-campus fraternity recruitment party, Pitt spokesman Joe Miksch said. The school suspended Sigma Chi and placed all Greek life organizations on "modified social probation," noting that recruitment activities are "expected to be alcohol free."

"The student was taken to an area hospital by his friends after they determined he had consumed excessive amounts of alcohol. We are grateful that this member of our Pitt family is now safe," Miksch said in an email.

Attorneys who represent national fraternities say the organizations have become increasingly concerned about liability issues created by such practices and most are involved in serious education efforts to combat hazing and excessive drinking.

Indeed, the incident at Pitt flies in the face of the new policies Sigma Chi's national leadership announced Jan. 16 — two days before the incident.

Those policies:

• Ban alcohol at recruitment and pledge events.

• Prohibit hard alcohol in chapter facilities, effective Feb. 1.

• Limit chapter pledge education events to five weeks.

• Bar alcohol at social events during recruitment or pledging.

• Limit members to three guests to events.

"These policy changes address important issues affecting the fraternity industry and are designed to help foster a safe and healthy environment at Sigma chi's more than 240 chapters around the world," an announcement on the Sigma chi international website said.

Sigma Chi's national office did not return calls for comment.

Sigma Chi's national office said the Pitt chapter has been suspended for apparently violating alcohol and drug policies, the Associated Press reported .

The policy changes followed the international organization's decision in November to shutter its chapter at Eastern Illinois University and suspended chapters at Lehigh University in Eastern Pennsylvania and Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Lehigh temporarily dissolved its Sigma Chi chapter last fall after an incident in which two students had to be hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.

Last week, the Interfraternity Council at Lehigh, a university that enrolls about 7,000 students in Bethlehem, went a step further and issued an order banning hard alcohol at all fraternity and sorority events.

"In light of the alarmingly high number of alcohol-related transports over the past semester and the numerous alcohol-related incidents at colleges and universities across the country, the IFC Executive Board feels that this ban is necessary in order to create a safer environment for its students," the order said.

The move reflects a pilot program the North American Interfraternity Council launched this month at several campuses across the country.

Program goals include removing hard alcohol from fraternity events, providing a more balanced academic-centered experience and fostering "safer social events," council spokeswoman Heather Matthews Kirk said.

"Nothing is more important to us than the safety and wellbeing of our members and guests, and recent alcohol-related events on college campuses are deeply concerning to us," Matthews said in an email.

Colleges across the country have acted swiftly this year in the wake of extensive national publicity following the death of Timothy Piazza . The 19-year-old Penn State student died of injuries he suffered at an alcohol-fueled event at a fraternity in February 2017 at the former Beta Theta Pi house after members of the fraternity delayed calling for help for more than 12 hours.

Criminal charges are still pending against members who failed to act.

Despite growing concern about such incidents, fraternity membership remains strong and is growing. Fraternity membership increased 50 percent nationwide between 2005 and 2015, Matthews said.

And while universities occasionally shutter or suspend Greek life organizations, those suspensions are typically temporary. Within a matter of years, many are back in business and in good standing on the campuses that banned them.

At Pitt, officials said Greek life groups are working with the university "to assess Pitt's culture related to alcohol use to develop an action plan that will outline concrete steps toward preventing serious incidents such as this from happening."

"I am thankful and proud that our students sought medical help for a student who needed it," Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner said. "We want our community to embrace bystander intervention and act courageously when needed. Our goal is to prevent emergencies through responsible behavior."

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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