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Thursday, Aug 22 2013 01:15 PM

Fresno State delays fraternity-sorority 'rush' to curb alcohol abuse

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    Philip Dhanens

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BY HANNAH FURFARO The Fresno Bee

FRESNO -- Fresno State students looking to join a fraternity or sorority this year will have to wait an extra month for the Greek community's annual recruitment event.

Paul Oliaro, vice president of student affairs, said the delay will help students make a more successful transition to college life. He said it also comes partly in response to the fatal hazing incident last fall involving an 18-year-old fraternity pledge.

Related Info

Fresno State facts

Enrollment: 22,710

Sorority and fraternity recruitment: Sept. 23 to Sept. 30

Semester ends: Dec. 24

This year the university also is putting a nine-week cap on orientation before new recruits may be formally initiated into a Greek house.

Both measures and other campus-wide initiatives targeting drinking are aimed at curbing alcohol abuse, Greek life coordinator Eddie Dominguez said.

"Not only are you seeing items being changed within the Greek life program, but the university as a whole," he said.

The change isn't easy for everyone to accept.

On Wednesday, Nathaliene Roessler, 18, a freshman from San Jose, said the delay will make it difficult for out-of-town students to find friends during a big adjustment period.

"You can't join a sorority until later and can't make friends until later," she said. "It would be nice to have friends right now and see people in your classes who you know."

But Greek student leaders say there will be benefits, like giving students time to weigh whether they want to make what Interfraternity Council president Jacob Olson, a member of Sigma Chi, calls a "lifelong commitment."

The delay might also help soften the image of Fresno State's Greek programs.

Jacqueline Balletto, a senior and president of Fresno State's Panhellenic Association, said popular media has blackened perceptions of sororities and fraternities.

"A lot of TV shows portray Greek life negatively and I think that has a very big effect on us," she said. "On our campus there are a lot of positives ... unfortunately the negative has been covering some of the positive events."

An impetus for change

Fall is a frantic but exciting time for hundreds of new Fresno State students: prospective sorority and fraternity members tour Greek houses and meet other students before accepting a membership invitation.

But recruitment activities turned deadly last fall when freshman Philip Dhanens of Bakersfield died after a night of binge drinking at the Theta Chi fraternity house.

His blood-alcohol level was 0.36 -- more than four times the legal limit to drive -- when he died. Theta Chi's chapter at California State University, Fresno has since been revoked.

Three of the fraternity leaders have been charged with misdemeanors. A status hearing in that case is set for Sept. 17.

Dhanens' parents filed a separate civil lawsuit against the fraternity in March, alleging their son's life could have been saved if the fraternity members had monitored him more closely. Fresno Superior Court Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan made a tentative ruling Wednesday in that case, allowing the lawsuit to move forward.

Dhanens' death was Fresno State's first such fatality since early 2006, when 19-year-old Danny Daniels Jr., a former university student, was found dead in a room at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house.

Since Dhanens' death, another fraternity, Gamma Zeta Alpha, was forced to sever its ties with the university because of a hazing incident.

Three other fraternities -- Delta Sigma Phi, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Sigma Alpha Epsilon -- currently are being sanctioned, with strict restrictions on alcohol use during social events and mandated alcohol abuse training.

Understanding the problem

California State University in July issued an alcohol and drug use report indicating that students at the 23 CSU campuses are drinking less often and in smaller amounts than past years.

But data from Fresno State shows there has been little change in how students use or view alcohol.

A survey done this year of about 760 Fresno State students shows 41% reported using alcohol within the past nine days. That's compared to 40% in 2009 and 50% of students who participated in a national survey last year.

About 18% said they'd had five or more drinks during a sitting at least once or twice in the past two weeks -- the same percentage as 2009. That's a far cry from national numbers that show about 34% of students drink at least five alcoholic beverages on a regular basis.

About 34% of Fresno State students reported they've never used alcohol.

"Our students tend to be below the national norms," Oliaro said. "It shows they are paying attention to our alcohol education efforts."

But in some ways, the picture of underage and binge drinking at Fresno State is still murky.

For example, the Fresno Police Department -- which only tracks certain felonies -- doesn't keep data on underage drinking incidents or misdemeanors.

Lt. Don Gross said many alcohol-related infractions never are reported to law enforcement. And those that are -- like domestic violence or drunken-driving cases -- aren't chronicled.

"I don't know (that) society wants us to track every single issue so we can put it on a map. ... I think society would rather invest in education programs to prevent individuals from being involved in a detrimental lifestyle," Gross said.

That makes quantifying alcohol-related incidents difficult.

Fresno State is largely a commuter campus, which makes it difficult to create records, said Kathy Yarmo, coordinator of health promotion and wellness services at Fresno State.

Dirk Ruthrauff, interim director of Fresno State's Student Health Center, said 65 student visits to the clinic resulted in an alcohol abuse diagnosis so far this calendar year. In 2012, 120 students were diagnosed with a drinking problem by university professionals.

But those numbers reveal only a portion of student drinking, he said, noting that many students involved in heavy drinking aren't alcoholics but just "get themselves into trouble" at weekend parties.

Finding solutions

Yarmo said Dhanens' death spurred her department to reprioritize its outreach activities.

Last school year, Yarmo helped coordinate the "Protect Your 'Dogs" campaign, an awareness plan aimed at teaching students how to drink responsibly.

She is helping launch a new program called "WATCHDOG" this year.

For $20, students get CPR instruction and a nifty red watch that is being pitched as a way to help students identify peers with training. The watch idea comes out of Stony Brook University in New York: it symbolizes students "banding" together while also making it easy to see who is prepared to respond to alcohol emergencies.

"With what happened with Philip, it gave us an opportunity to refocus and we decided to really focus on the signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning first," she said.

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