1. Opinion

Editorial: Criminal charges should finally wake up FSU fraternities to hazing's dangers

The death last fall of a 20-year-old Florida State University fraternity pledge revealed pervasive dangerous behavior within the school's Greek system. Andrew Coffey, a Pi Kappa Phi pledge, died from alcohol poisoning after an off-campus party, and authorities this week arrested several fraternity members for their alleged roles in his death. By elevating the incident to a criminal case, authorities in Tallahassee are sending a strong message that ritual hazing and binge drinking won't be tolerated and must come to an end.

Every detail about Coffey's death on Nov. 3 is shocking. When his fraternity brothers found him unconscious the morning after an alcohol-drenched party, they delayed calling for medical help. When authorities began to investigate, fraternity members closed ranks and refused to cooperate. At the time of his autopsy, the 6-foot-tall, 200-pound Coffey's blood alcohol level was 0.447 percent. It was likely even higher when he died, possibly 0.558, a staggering seven times higher than the legal limit to drive. This is the inevitable result of drinking an entire 750ml bottle of straight liquor, as Coffey did.

But it wasn't mere binge drinking, according to Pi Kappa Phi lore. It was "family tradition." The grand jury report said the jug of Wild Turkey bourbon Coffey downed was a "family bottle" bestowed on him by his big brother in the frat. True brothers and friends protect each other from such recklessness. These members egged it on, reflecting the sick culture inside FSU's Greek system.

Reacting to the news, university president John Thrasher said "these arrests are the first step in seeking justice for Andrew and his loved ones. … We hope all members and alumni of our Greek organizations are paying attention." It's past time that they do. Last fall, Thrasher met with campus fraternity leaders early in the semester and vowed that he would not tolerate "reckless and dangerous behavior." And yet, this hazing party happened just weeks later. After Coffey died, Thrasher correctly suspended all Greek activities at the school indefinitely. He has challenged student leaders to step up and help create solutions. What more can FSU do to stop budding adults who seem determined to endanger themselves?

Among the nine fraternity members arrested this week are two men from prominent Tampa Bay area families. Christopher M. Hamlin, 20, of Valrico, is the son of Tampa Assistant Police Chief Marc Hamlin. Anthony "AJ" Oppenheimer, 21, of Wesley Chapel is the son of Damon Oppenheimer, vice president and director of amateur scouting for the New York Yankees minor league organization in Tampa. All nine are charged with "college hazing-cause injury or death," a third-degree felony. Four, including Oppenheimer, have pleaded not guilty. Maybe criminal charges and the threat of prison will finally get the attention of these students and countless other college kids who blithely ignore the dangers of excessive drinking.

Pi Kappa Phi's creed states that "membership means personal responsibility" and by joining, members "prepare themselves diligently to shoulder their full responsibility as citizens." Andrew Coffey's death was a failure of responsibility and of citizenship. The justice system will now determine if it was also a crime.