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Editorial: FSU president takes bold action after frat pledge’s death

John Thrasher, president of FSU, suspended all activities by fraternities and sororities and banned alcohol at any student group events following the death of a 20-year-old student at an off-campus party. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Florida State University president John Thrasher could have taken a wait-and-see approach following the death of a fraternity pledge at an off-campus party, allowing the police investigation to be completed before taking serious action. Instead he got serious right away, suspending all fraternities and sororities in an unmistakable wakeup call to students about dangerous behavior. It’s no secret that drugs and alcohol often permeate college social life at universities nationwide, and Thrasher showed strong leadership by challenging student leaders to help find solutions.

Andrew Coffey, a 20-year-old Pi Kappa Phi fraternity pledge, was found dead early Nov. 3 after attending a house party the previous night. Authorities have not determined his cause of death, but they suspect alcohol was a factor. FSU officials also linked the Greek suspension to a drug arrest of a Phi Delta Theta fraternity member who was charged with the sale and trafficking of cocaine. That case is unrelated to Coffey’s death, but the incidents together underscore the need for what Thrasher termed a "new normal" in Greek life.

The suspension means fraternity and sorority chapters cannot hold chapter meetings, parties or philanthropic events. Thrasher also banned alcohol at all events organized by student groups, which number more than 700 at the Tallahassee campus. The sanctions came before next week’s homecoming events, which draw thousands of alumni and visitors for celebrations, parades and, invariably, widespread drinking. Thrasher’s actions will surely put a damper on the party, and that’s a good thing. There could hardly be a better opportunity — while students, their parents, donors and others with a stake in FSU are in town — to send the unequivocal message that the campus culture needs to sober up.

This is true at other universities too, of course. A 19-year-old died in an alcohol-related hazing at Penn State in February, prompting Greek activities to be suspended. Louisiana State University implemented a one-month suspension and continues to ban alcohol at Greek parties after an 18-year-old student’s hazing death in September. But such bans can only do so much because the partying spills beyond campus boundaries. That’s why Thrasher was smart to say the suspension at Florida State will be lifted not by a certain date but only when student groups and Greek organizations commit to a new culture. "And our students must be full participants in creating it," he said. His actions drew praise from the state Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s public universities. The board indicated that action at campuses statewide might be needed and vowed to take up the issue in January, a promising acknowledgement of how widespread this problem is.

Binge drinking, drug use and other reckless behavior has been normalized in the minds of too many students as part of the college experience. With the death of a fraternity pledge at FSU, the need for an examination of those attitudes has been put in terrible focus. Thrasher’s decision to put student groups and Greek organizations essentially on lockdown is a decisive first step toward preventing more tragedies.