A sobering reality
By Garth Sears
When he discusses drinking, tragedy and lawsuits with people nationwide, Dave Westol gets rapt attention by flashing a picture of grim young men in dark suits and ties — their hands folded. Their heads bowed.
The picture shows the funeral of 19-year-old University of Kansas freshman Jason Wren, who was pronounced dead from alcohol poisoning on March 8, 2009, in his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
“I throw that slide up, and the audience inevitably becomes silent,” said Westol, a former chief executive officer of the national Theta Chi fraternity and now an official for the Fraternal Information and Programming Group, a nonprofit that educates Greeks nationwide on risky behaviors and legal liabilities.
Before Jason Wren died, he was best known for his big heart and fun-loving nature. He was outgoing. He was athletic. He played for the KU lacrosse club.
But since his death, Wren is better known for how and where he died. His name has taken on a national and local role as an attention-grabber for experts like Westol and a wake-up call for universities. He is just one student among grim statistics that show significant alcohol abuse among college students — especially those at the University of Kansas — and even more abuse among fraternity members nationwide.
Jason Wren died in a fraternity, but he spent most of his time at the University elsewhere.
In August 2008, his freshman year, he moved onto the first floor of Oliver Hall. Five months later, he told his father he had to move out for violating undisclosed rules.
Diana Robertson, director of Student Housing, said in an email that — in addition to increased emphasis on alcohol education — the department has changed its policy. It now notifies parents when a student’s housing contract is canceled because of alcohol or drug violations.
Jay Wren told The Kansan that his son had downplayed his write-ups — that a resident assistant found a shot glass, and later a beer can, in his room, and that he had been seen holding a beer can for a friend while the friend used the restroom.
Reading about that claim in a Kansan story brought back memories for the resident assistant on the other side of that incident. Since Wren didn’t live on the RA’s floor, the RA hadn’t yet realized he wrote up the freshman whose death dominated newspaper headlines.
“I don’t feel guilty about it at all, but I feel like a part of the chain of events that caused this to happen,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said during security rounds on the night he wrote Wren up, he came across a group of five to 10 people who did “the whole scatter thing.” Then came his encounter with Wren, who he said was standing in the corner of the hallway holding a can behind his back.
“I said, ‘Dude, what do you got?’” he said.
The RA said Wren told him he was holding the beer can for a friend in the restroom. The RA replied that he would have to write him up anyway. He said he thought the can was Wren’s, and either way, he seemed drunk.
“I wouldn’t say he was screaming at me, but his voice was definitely elevated in frustration and anger,” he said. This was the second semester, so his violations were adding up. “He knew he was in a lot of trouble at that point. So that probably added to his anger.”
He said he wrote up Wren only once, but heard about him from the RA assigned to his floor. He heard that Wren was a genuinely nice guy.
“It was just that, whenever he got alcohol in his system, it just made him a different person,” he said, “like it does with everybody.”
Wren’s trouble at Oliver highlights that his problem began before drinking at SAE, but it does beg the question of why the fraternity would welcome a new pledge with that history.
Reuben Perez, director of the Student Involvement and Leadership Center, said when he got the call informing him of Wren’s death, he wanted to know why SAE accepted somebody who already had been kicked out of University housing for drinking.
“You know that we rarely remove people from KU housing at all — rarely,” he said. “Didn’t that send a red flag in somebody’s mind?”
Shortly after Wren’s death, the national SAE fraternity said in a public statement that it had closed its investigation into the chapter and found no criminal actions or negligence by the organization, the chapter or its respective members that led to the death.
“We believe this is a very unfortunate, isolated incident,” it said.
But the Wren family’s lawsuit said SAE correspondence between the national fraternity and its KU chapter showed numerous violations of rules and policies regarding underage consumption of alcohol and “providing alcohol to a visibly intoxicated member” on the night of Wren’s death.
The lawsuit also said that as punishment for those violations, the KU chapter was required to pay an increased risk management (insurance) premium and was strongly encouraged to implement at least one semester of alcohol-free living.
The house hosted an alcohol-free concert a month and a half after Wren’s death, and Jay Wren publicly asked for SAE to become an alcohol-free fraternity in memory of his son. The fraternity did later change some alcohol regulations, but it still allows alcohol in the house.
In a deposition in the Wren lawsuit, Frank Ginocchio, the general counsel and director of risk management for the national fraternity, said that about two years before Wren’s death the national fraternity considered, but voted down, a ban on alcohol consumption.
Ginocchio said he recommended the KU chapter become a dry house after Wren’s death. He said he spoke directly to John Stacy, president of the KU SAE house corporation and adviser to the chapter.
“They didn’t feel it was the right thing to do at the time,” Ginoccio said. “I think they felt that their efforts educationally and in the memorial service would be enough.”
While the Wren family lawyer, Steve Gorny, said the settlement forbade further release of testimony in the depositions, one of his early filings quoted Ginocchio as saying SAE chose not to ban alcohol “in part because it was too harsh of a punishment and out of concern that the collegiate members would choose to rent another property and the House Corp. would lose its tenants.”
SAE did commit to hosting the Jason Wren Initiative for six years, including the two already past, according to Kristin Wing, chair of the adviser board for KU SAE, but she expected it to go further.
Alan Fischer, KU SAE president, and Chaz Rumage, organizer of the second Jason Wren Initiative and a former KU SAE officer, agreed to be interviewed for this story but backed out when Stacy, the chapter adviser, told them that after the settlement they couldn’t publicly comment on Wren or the Wren Initiative, despite previous interviews with the media.
“If it’s under the heading of Jason Wren, we don’t talk about that,” Stacy explained, speaking for the KU SAE chapter and its house corporation.
“Our legal counsel advised us not to comment on the Jason Wren case, or events surrounding the case,” Kristin Wing, chair of the KU SAE adviser board, wrote in an email.
SAE national officials failed to respond for comment to requests for interviews.
Jay Wren said it was a mistake for him to allow his son to live in a house with drinking, and he’s outspoken against underage members of any fraternity living in a house where alcohol is openly served.
With an undisclosed amount of damages at stake, he no longer criticizes SAE, aside from his desire to have SAE become an alcohol-free house.
“The contract with SAE said that it didn’t allow underage drinking in the house,” he said in an email, “and I believe they are now enforcing that clause as there were many students expelled out of the house last spring. I’m very pleased to see this change.”
He also said he was pleased that SAE was continuing the Jason Wren Initiative.
“It’s my hope that SAE KU continues to carry on this initiative and that the house decides to eventually one day be dry and thrive, alcohol free,” he wrote.
Despite the house’s educational efforts, KU SAE was busted again.
Just six days before the debut of the Jason Wren Initiative, the national SAE fraternity said its KU chapter violated alcohol policies, first by buying alcohol with chapter funds, then by supplying it to underage pledges. As a result, 22 active members were expelled from the house.
A young man died after a night of too much drinking when no one in the SAE house called for help.
Within a month, the university he attended shut down the chapter for at least five years. Members had less than two weeks to vacate the SAE house.
When you telephone the house now, you hear this: “The number you have dialed is not in service.”
But that student wasn’t Jason Wren. His name was George Desdunes. He attended Cornell University and died in February.
Officials from both Cornell and the University of Kansas caution against direct comparisons, given the differences — the University of Kansas is public. Cornell is private; Kansas is in the Midwest. Cornell is an Ivy League school in New York.
Travis Apgar, associate dean of students at Cornell, said in an email that Cornell SAE was in a school-owned house, but that is not what allowed the university to ban them for five years. Rather, Cornell uses a recognition policy with fraternities. Greek houses recognized as university organizations are subject to Cornell rules and punishment when rules are broken — whether they are on-campus or off-campus, in a university-owned house or otherwise.
The University of Kansas has no such policy. All Greek houses at the University are off-campus on private property. Many, such as SAE, are owned by a corporation board that oversees the chapter.
From the University’s perspective, a fraternity is simply one of the 637 student organizations registered. It can only face punishment for things that happen at its official events. Hazing is the only violation the University can look at when it’s off-campus.
The University investigated SAE for hazing but did not impose sanctions.
“The other factor that is significant to the discussion is whether or not it was an official function,” Marlesa Roney, vice provost for student success, said.
Days before any event, a Greek chapter must submit a form to the University, specifying a guest list, availability of alcohol, security and safe transportation. SAE did not file such a form for the night of Wren’s death, so the University didn’t consider it an official function.
“Unfortunately, the media — back when this hit — didn’t care to know the difference between a registered chapter event and a bunch of students hanging out,” said Reuben Perez, director of the Student Involvement and Leadership Center, which oversees the Greek Life office. “That particular night, most of the chapter wasn’t even present.”
“I know, in the eyes of the world, it was like we were trying to cover something,” he said.
Roney said that if a fraternity didn’t file the form for a planned event, the University could still investigate whether the event appeared to be sponsored by the fraternity — and therefore, an official function subject to rules.
“Everything we were able to learn about what happened that night at SAE was that there was no official function going on,” she said. “It was just an individual or two, sitting around drinking.”
Although Wren did not die during an offical function, in January 2010 then-IFC president Jake Droge told The Kansan changes were being made to the Intrafraternity Council and Panhellenic’s joint alcohol policy. But no substantial changes have been made.
As late as a month ago, the posted policy was dated 2007. After officials of both organizations were questioned for this story about promised changes, a new policy was posted online and backdated to March 23, 2010.
Amy Long, associate director of the Student Involvement and Leadership Center, said Monday the changes made were only grammatical in nature.
“The document is currently under review for the future, as is good practice, and we anticipate changes in the near future,” she wrote in an email.
J.M. Angotti, IFC vice president of risk management, said in a statement, “Both IFC / PHA councils and the advisors understand that the Joint Alcohol Policy needs to be changed and are currently working to re-write the document.”
He said that IFC and PHA officers want it done before the end of the semester, but chapters have to vote on it first.
GREEK LEGAL LIABILITY
Dave Westol, a national expert on fraternities and their legal liabilities, has experience with prosecutions and lawsuits.
He was a prosecutor before he became the chief national executive of his fraternity, Theta Chi. And he’s been the director of policy interpretation at the Fraternal Information and Programming Group — a non-profit fraternity insurance advising group — since 1995.
During his 18 years as Theta Chi CEO, Westol had members die and he suspended chapters for bad choices. He knows it doesn’t take much to get sued.
“I told our men, ‘six or more, it’s going to be an event,’” Westol said. “If you’ve got alcohol, and there’s more than a few people, it’s going to be a chapter event, whether you like it or not.”
Westol speaks from the fraternity’s perspective, as in trying to avoid lawsuits. The more it looks like the fraternity was involved — which might mean a larger number of members present — the worse it is for them legally. While the University didn’t punish SAE after looking at the drinking surrounding Wren’s death, his family could and did sue.
The Wren family’s lawyer, Steve Gorny, made a compelling enough case that SAE and its lawyers were willing to settle. But under the terms of the agreement nobody can publicly say how much the Wrens received in the settlement.
In most cases, the chapter’s liability insurance, which would pay any settlements or judgments, is attained by the national fraternity. The national SAE fraternity is insured through James R. Favor and Company, based in Denver.
According to its website, the company was bought in 2006 by several national fraternities. One of them was Sigma Alpha Epsilon Financial & Housing Corporation.
Samantha Davis, who used to be her sorority’s social chair and vice president of risk management, said that parties at KU could be exhausting to plan — she had to account for her chapter’s rules, the PHA’s rules, and her national sorority’s rules at once — but that she was reminded by Panhellenic Association officials that legal liability didn’t end there.
“If it wasn’t a sorority function, but a bunch of us went to a bar together, and something bad happened to one of the girls,” Davis said, “all it would take is one of the girls’ parents to get the national sorority involved, because she was with all her friends from the sorority.”
She said regulations for official functions could be difficult to follow. She gave the example of a sorority hosting an event at a bar on Massachusetts Street, while following the IFC and PHA requirement that the host chapter provide transportation to and from its event.
“You’re not allowed to drive and meet us later, because that’s a liability. And you can’t leave with anyone else,” Davis said. “People want to walk down the street, but you can’t let them. You have to drive back to the house, and then drive back to Mass. if you want to do that.”
Westol said taking on a Greek affiliation meant additional responsibilities and legal liabilities. “That’s one of the things you give up” when you join a fraternity, Westol said. “You have to follow the policy. Now if you don’t want that, drop out of your organization, be released from your vows, and you can have all the keg parties you want and nobody’s going to care.”
In the two years since Wren’s death, the University has made several policy changes.
“I think the University focused even more closely on alcohol after Jason Wren passed away,” Roney said. “It gave us a sense of urgency — we really need to address this now.”
Under the new rules, if the University becomes aware of an alcohol- or drug-related violation through official notification, such as a police report, it notifies the parents of the student. The Department of Student Housing will now notify parents when a student’s housing contract is canceled because of alcohol or drug violations, which was not policy when Wren was kicked out of University housing.
Additionally, incoming students under the age of 22 must take AlcoholEdu, an online alcohol education course, before they can enroll in classes.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to say, ‘Oh, I loved taking it,’” Roney said, “But there is national research that shows that it is one of the best tools available, other than one-on-one counseling.”
The University also enacted an amnesty policy for underage students. They will not be punished for drinking when they call for help, either for themselves or for a friend.
“If you do the right thing and get help, then we’re not going to come after you,” Roney said. “For some students, that can be a deterrent. We wanted to take that off the table.”
The University now bans campus sidewalk chalking by entities not registered with the University.
“The only reason we changed the chalking policy was we were trying to stop the bars from chalking on campus,” Perez said.
He said it was part of the University’s effort to reduce the presence of alcohol.
“It reduces access to students,” he said.
For when students decide to be in the presence of alcohol, the University has established a new responsible-drinking campaign for its students called the Jayhawk Buddy System. It focuses on students sticking together when they drink, making sure that everyone is safe.
“We are firm believers that when Jayhawks take care of each other,” Roney said, “that will make a big difference.”
In February, during a timeout in the men’s basketball game against the University of Missouri, a full section of students performed a flash mob, breaking out into a choreographed dance for a minute and a half, and then took off their shirts to reveal red Jayhawk Buddy System shirts.
It drew thunderous applause at Allen Fieldhouse. The YouTube video of it, posted by Kansas Athletics, Inc., received more than 300,000 hits.
The second Jason Wren Initiative in April ended with KU SAE members handing out items with the Jayhawk Buddy System logo: a string-pull backpack, a koozie, a cup, a bottle opener with a small light, a poster and a business card holder with a SafeRide card inside.
More than a thousand people were silent while Chaz Rumage, a former KU SAE officer who helped organize this year’s Jason Wren Initiative, asked the crowd some tense questions last month as he introduced the event’s speaker.
“How many times have you gone out to get blackout drunk? How many times have you carried a friend home from the bar? Did you ever laugh at him, put him to bed, and say “He’s going to feel that tomorrow?
“These are all things we thought the night Jason passed away,” Rumage said. “Think twice about it and ask yourself, ‘How do I want this to play out?’”
“So, the serious part being said, we’re also here to have a good time.”
He flipped on a pair of sunglasses, black with neon orange framing. The audience snapped to life, laughing.
“We all like to have fun, and we all like to drink, and the reason we’re here is not to tell you ‘Don’t drink.’ The reason we’re here is to tell you to drink responsibly.”
The second Wren Initiative highlighted the prickly issues in trying to reach college students — especially the underaged — with responsible-drinking messages.
One can point to Wren’s death and say it means that underage drinking shouldn’t be tolerated. Another can say it means that the underaged need the most help with safe-drinking education.
Before his son’s death, Jay Wren admitted that he knew Jason drank. In one of his online comments reacting to stories about Jason’s death, calling himself “DenverDad” on kansan.com, he wrote:
“Why do we let our children, underage, sleep in a house that has open alcohol and no adult supervision? It was the biggest mistake in my life.
“The law doesn’t allow anyone under 21 to be in bars after 10 p.m., but it’s OK for them to be in ‘sleeping bars’ called fraternities?
“YES, I made mistake of going to bar with my son the weekend before he died, the weekend I helped him move. YES, I made an error in judgment that it would be okay for Jason to be in a fraternity …
“I have not had a drink since the day I heard of Jason’s death. Why can’t fraternities change? Why can’t the University change?”
Jay Wren said then he is against 21-year-old students and underage students living under the same roof in University housing and at fraternities.
While Perez doesn’t draw the line at 21, he does think freshmen shouldn’t live in fraternities.
“I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “The Greeks know I think that, and I’m not popular with that view. The women don’t allow it, and they’re doing very, very well.”
Regardless of Greek involvement, the underage question can get complicated for the University.
Roney said, “I am unable, as a University administrator, to design programs that focus on healthy alcohol consumption for students under 21, because if I do that, I’m encouraging people to break the law. Sometimes I feel like our hands are tied behind us because we know what’s happening, but we can’t really deal with it.”
University officials have suggested one idea for Greek underage drinking — and Greek liability in general: no in-house alcohol, and maybe even no in-house parties.
All of KU’s sorority houses are dry. Most fraternity houses are not.
“From a risk management perspective, that just amazes me,” Roney said.
She used to be an officer for a sorority’s corporation board, and said she would be “very, very reluctant” to serve as a corporation board officer for any house that allowed alcohol.
Perez said more national fraternities are banning house parties.
“If we had a no-party-in-house community, I’d be thrilled,” he said. “I’m good with that.”
But only a fraternity, its corporation board, or the national fraternity has the power to change a house’s alcohol rules. The University and its officials don’t.
AN INFLUENTIAL DEATH
Jason Wren’s death shook his family, SAE, the Greek community and the University. After his death, his 16-year-old sister, Victoria, and mother, Mary, both committed suicide. The Greek community is still trying to adapt its policies. The University introduced more alcohol education and awareness. Maybe these changes will save a life. Maybe these changes aren’t enough. For Jason Wren, changes don’t matter.