Cornell SAE hazing case has lawyer asking: Where's the adult oversight?

A Cornell hazing death and the OU racist video, both SAE, point to a lack of adult leadership, lawyer says

A lawyer representing the family of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge at Cornell University who died four years ago after a hazing incident said Tuesday that his case and the racist video chant by SAE members at the University of Oklahoma have a key element in common: a lack of real leadership in the fraternity structure.

"Fraternities nationwide are allowing self-management by 18- and 19-year-olds with a serious lack of mature oversight," attorney Douglas Fierberg said.

Fierberg's case involves the death of George Desdunes, an African American sophomore who pledged to SAE in 2011.


An earlier version of this article misspelled attorney Douglas Fierberg's last name as Frierberg.


In what investigators termed a hazing incident, the pre-med student from Brooklyn was kidnapped by members of the fraternity -- blindfolded, and tied at the ankles and wrists with zip ties and duct tape -- and taken to an off-campus townhouse, where he later died of alcohol poisoning.

Desdunes was 19.

The fraternity was eventually cleared by a judge of criminal wrongdoing, but it was found guilty of hazing, unlawful dealing with a child, which refers to serving alcohol to a person younger than 21, and second-degree criminal nuisance.

Fierberg is now pursing the matter in civil court on behalf of the family.

Cornell's punishment was swift, suspending the fraternity chapter for at least five years.

Fierberg has also filed a lawsuit in a Georgia Tech case involving a different fraternity, which he says further demonstrates the lack of mature leadership across the university organizations.

That second lawsuit alleges that the leadership of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity ignored troublesome practices of its chapter at Georgia Tech, which included members encouraging one another to sexually assault women, featured a "rape-bait" email and songs joking about sexual violence, and chapter meetings declaring that "rape is good."

Last year, the fraternity chapter was suspended by Georgia Tech for three years after a Phi Kappa Tau member circulated instructions in an email that, using crude language, encouraged other members to provide large amounts of alcohol to women in an attempt to have sex with them.

Fierberg said the racial chants against blacks by members of the SAE fraternity at the University of Oklahoma fit into a pattern of irresponsible behavior that is condoned by the groups’ national leadership.

"By allowing teenagers to make these decisions independent of adult guidance, you can end up with a chapter gone far awry with things like this, even injury and death," he said.

"Many of these chapters insist on self-management. But it's that very thing that makes them far more riskier than any other organization in the entire nation."

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