The death of an 18-year-old student from presumed alcohol toxicity has thrust alcohol use into the spotlight at the University of Kentucky.
Thomas “Lofton” Hazelwood was pronounced dead in the evening of Monday, Oct. 19, after being found unresponsive in the on-campus chapterhouse of UK fraternity FarmHouse. According to UK’s crime log, police reported 20 counts of liquor violations in the chapterhouse.
Those violations arose during the investigation of Hazelwood’s death, when police found alcohol in a room that could have been accessible to as many as 20 people in the hour before Hazelwood’s death. These violations were recorded as underage possession due to the age of the students accessing the fraternity house.
FarmHouse is a member of Kentucky Interfraternity Council, the governing body for 20 of UK’s fraternities. Conduct records reveal that 40% of IFC fraternities — excluding FarmHouse — violated UK’s alcohol policy in the last 14 months.
UK’s approach to alcohol
Trisha Clement-Montgomery, UK’s dean of students, said the way alcohol misuse is reported highlights group use over individual use, making alcohol use look concentrated in IFC.
“We can't really show the impact or the effects that it has on college students alone,” Clement-Montgomery said. “I will say though, that from what we have seen and what we do know in relation to alcohol use in IFC, I think it's something that really highlights an issue - that we know to be true across the board nationally for most institutions - is this use of alcohol and maybe not necessarily having enough information and education related to how you use that and how you partake in that in a safe environment.”
The University of Kentucky is a dry campus. According to the university’s alcohol policy, alcoholic beverages are prohibited in “fraternity and sorority houses (on or off campus), and the undergraduate sections of university apartments” in part because the majority of students are underage. Hazelwood’s death differed from other alcohol violations by UK fraternities because it occurred on campus at the fraternity house, instead of at off-campus residences rented by fraternity members.
Though the circumstances of Hazelwood’s death are still under investigation, alcohol has been established as a factor by the Fayette County coroner and UK police. But the problem of underage drinking is not new to UK or to UK’s fraternities.
UK’s most recent Clery report lists almost 700 liquor law violations on or in close proximity to campus that were referred to the university in 2020. According to archived Kernel reports, that number has increased from the early 2000s, such as 375 incidents in 2005.
In an incident from September 2020, a new member of UK fraternity Kappa Alpha Order was taken to the hospital for overconsumption of alcohol during an off-campus party, according to records from Kappa Alpha’s conduct investigation.
The most publicized instance of alcohol violations at UK was the 2018 death of four-year-old Marco Shemwell, who was struck by Alpha Tau Omega pledge Jacob Heil. Shemwell died two days after the collision from head and neck trauma.
Heil, now 21, was convicted of driving under the influence after partaking in beers at his fraternity’s tailgate earlier in the day. According to a blood sample, his blood alcohol level was 0.038. The legal limit for those under 21 is .02.
Heil was recently found not guilty of reckless homicide. His fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, was suspended by UK until 2033 and is one of multiple fraternities at UK who have faced disciplinary action in connection to underage drinking.
Excluding FarmHouse, seven fraternities at UK are currently on disciplinary probation or suspension for alcohol-related infractions; several of the fraternities committed concurrent infractions against COVID-19 guidelines and harm or threat of harm. Pi Kappa Alpha was also put on probation for alcohol misuse, a penalty that ended in September.
All of the fraternities who committed alcohol infractions are members of Kentucky’s Interfraternity Council. Combined with other violations, more than half of IFC member organizations have faced disciplinary action this school year.
“One of the things that I think can get misrepresented is a lot of times, if there is an investigation regarding fraternity and alcohol use, it doesn't automatically mean that everyone in the fraternity is responsible for it,” said associate dean of students Brandon Thompson.
IFC has 20 member fraternities. Of those 20 fraternities, 45% have faced disciplinary action for alcohol misuse this school year. More than half — 55% — of IFC fraternities currently face disciplinary action from UK, including FarmHouse, whose investigation has not yet yielded a sentence.
According to UK administrators, investigations are pending for alleged alcohol misuse and alleged hazing by other fraternities, in addition to the 10 already on disciplinary action. Allowing time for those investigations to conclude is part of the reason UK suspended new member activities for IFC fraternities, according to Thompson.
“Our Conduct Office is working their hardest to make sure that they get through the investigations but to do that, that means that it takes time,” Thompson said. “They don't want to compromise on the integrity of the process.”
Administrators declined to say how many additional fraternities are under investigation currently because the allegations may be unsubstantiated. Conduct investigations are reported to UK’s conduct website only once an investigation is concluded, not while they are ongoing.
“We wouldn't be able to put a timeline on it, it really is dependent on all the individuals involved,” said Clement-Montgomery of the ongoing investigations.
All 10 student organizations currently on probation or revocation are fraternities and all are fraternities in IFC. These 10 fraternities, along with FarmHouse’s ongoing investigation, put IFC at the center of questions raised by Hazelwood’s death.
Hazelwood’s death was listed as an accident and foul play is not suspected, according to the university.
There have been 77 fraternity-related deaths in the U.S. since 2005 and at least one hazing-related death annually since 1970.
Not all hazing deaths are alcohol-related, and not all alcohol-related deaths are hazing. But the two often go hand-in-hand.
A recent high-profile case ended in the indictment of 11 Virginia Commonwealth students in relation to the hazing death of a fraternity pledge, who died of alcohol poisoning. Adam Oakes, 19, had received a bid to Delta Chi and found dead the morning after passing out on a couch after a party.
Hazelwood’s death aligned with national trends in similar cases, which often surround the death of a freshman pledge. Hazelwood, 18, was a first-year agricultural economics major and
“new member” of FarmHouse, according to the fraternity’s CEO.
“When we look at concerns that we have had with the IFC community this fall, they have centered around new members,” Thompson said.
Three days after Hazelwood’s death, UK administrators indefinitely suspended all new member activities for Kentucky IFC. Because fraternities on probation can still recruit new members, this ban impacted 16 of IFC’s fraternities. The four organizations not impacted are on revocation, which means they were already prohibited from recruiting new members.
New member activities are often the source of alcohol violations. Kappa Alpha Order’s infraction occurred at a bid day event where new members were instructed to drink.
“Once at the house new members were taken to the basement and handed a bottle of vodka that they were told to finish as group of brothers. It is unclear how big the bottle was,”said the tip initially reporting KA said. “There were 23 new members there to consume it. Further it was shared that supposedly it was optional to drink no one was "forced" (sic) to drink it.”
According to the tip, new members were welcomed to the fraternity after they finished the alcohol by “a large number of members.” Drinking continued for the remainder of the party. This led to a student being taken to the hospital for overconsumption.
“One of the new members was taken to the hospital after drinking too much on his own free will given that there was no provided alcohol,” Kappa Alpha’s president told UK officials.
Kappa Alpha Order hosted at least three other parties in the fall of 2020 despite instructions from the university to “1. cease new member operations, and 2. not to host any in-person events and/or events with alcohol.”
Fraternity brothers provided alcohol to other members at at least one of these parties. UK’s conduct office concluded that the fraternity was responsible for these violations given that Kappa Alpha’s recruitment chair invited students to the bid day party.
Like Kappa Alpha Order, Sigma Alpha Epsilon received a citation from UK for alcohol misuse because they provided new members with alcohol during the rush process.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon hosted an off-campus party on Sept. 1, 2020, at which beer was provided. “Based upon the fact that September 1, 2020 was a fraternity recruitment period, it was reasonable to believe that it was more likely than not that individuals attending this event were under 21 years of age,” states the summary of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s conduct investigation.
UK’s Code of Student Conduct says that “alcoholic beverages may not, in any circumstance, be used by, possessed by, or given to any person under twenty-one years of age.”
Members of UK fraternity Triangle, an IFC member organization, pooled money in order to purchase alcohol for a costume party on Halloween of 2020.
“One member was accepting money from underage members to purchase alcohol, and that the chapter members who were present were drinking,” states the summary of Triangle’s conduct hearing.
Triangle members planned rides to and from the party in case guests became too intoxicated to drive, according to the case notes. Triangle members were aware that underage guests would be present.
“Everyone Venmo’ed and asked about - bought for both of and not of age guest – not everyone was of age,” the case notes say.
UK fraternity Delta Tau Delta was suspended by the university for misuse of alcohol and hazing. The initial tip submitted to UK alleged that one member was arrested for public intoxication after walking back from a Delta Tau party.
“One of these pledges also got arrested the other night because he was kept after one of the parties and forced to drink. He was so drunk they left him on a couch and walked home covered in mayonnaise and ketchup,” the tip said.
This allegation was strongly refuted by Delta Tau Delta’s president in an internal report submitted to UK officials. He said the new member in question “wanted to emphasize that he was never, nor has ever been forced to consume alcohol by anyone including active members and New Members. This New Member had been at a local bar with three of his pledge brothers where he had gotten intoxicated and taken back to the Waller house by his group in order to prevent getting in trouble at his dorm. “
According to the internal report, the mayonnaise and ketchup was a prank by other pledges. Based on a police report and testimony from Delta’s previous president, UK officials found Delta Tau responsible for alcohol misuse because the new member was intoxicated while underage and taken to the Waller address, a Delta-related party house known as “the Fort.”
UK also found it “more likely than not” that hazing did occur in Delta Tau Delta, including confirmation by fraternity members that they did pour condiments on an intoxicated brother.
“A witness for [redacted] confirmed that new members would bring food to older members ‘as a way to get to know the upper classmen.’ [Redacted] also confirmed cleaning took place. The later two examples demonstrate personal servitude,” said an email sent from UK’s conduct office to Delta Tau Delta.
As part of their probation, Delta Tau Delta is required to complete both alcohol and hazing programs by the end of November.
Two other fraternities – Alpha Sigma Phi and Phi Gamma Delta – have also been cited by UK for misuse of alcohol. UK has not filled a Sept. 7, 2021, open records requests related to Alpha Sigma Phi and Phi Gamma Delta.
Clement-Montgomery said UK was discussing changes to its Code of Student Conduct, which includes policies related to alcohol and fraternity and sorority life, prior to Hazelwood’s death.
“I do anticipate that there will likely be changes, but again, not based on this particular loss,” she said.
Alcohol training at UK
Following Hazelwood’s death, UK announced that all IFC members would undergo bystander intervention training and “an additional course around hazing prevention and university expectations.”
The University of Kentucky requires all incoming students to pass an online substance abuse program though AlcoholEDU. The course is intended to educate students about the effects of alcohol and how to handle potentially unsafe situations; but as alcohol misuse continues, how effective can these trainings be?
According to Corrine Williams, associate vice provost for student well-being, the programs used by UK are the “gold standard” in alcohol education, widely-used and evidence-based. Because most students undergo those trainings as freshmen, UK is considering whether to require the trainings for all students on an annual basis.
“For some of these students, it's been two or three years since they went through that training, and essentially using it as a refresher…we know after about a year, people start to forget some of the key pieces, and so doing those refreshers is really important to making sure students have the information,” Williams said.
One of the benefits of annual refreshers is that after some time in college, students are more likely to have the context to understand alcohol misuse and are better prepared to act on skills training. New members of IFC, National Panhellenic and United Greek Council will have two alcohol skills training sessions this week, Thompson said.
“They've had some more time on the campus as well, may have seen or been around alcohol more, and so this might mean something to them now, given the current circumstances, that it didn't mean earlier in the year,” Thompson said.
Thompson, Williams and Clement-Montgomery all emphasized the importance of education, intervention and prevention in alcohol misuse.
“It's just important that we equip our students and empower them to feel comfortable in these situations,” Clement-Montgomery said. “And to be able to act quickly when they are in situations that may be unsafe or are uncomfortable.”
An ongoing issue
“This is a problem that it's constantly evolving,” Williams said of alcohol misuse. “And so our solutions have to keep adapting, and we keep changing, trainings change a little bit every year to try to adapt.”
In the last 20 years, alcohol use has been identified as a problem at UK over and over again despite repeated attempts at change. Incidents of alcohol misuse have risen in the last two decades, according to Kernel archives.
In 2000, the university was one of eight colleges to receive a grant to reduce risky drinking behavior among college students. But deaths connected to drinking culture still happened, according to Kernel archives.
In 2005 a UK sophomore, Thomas Joseph Byers III, was struck and killed by a train while running away from UK police, who had been called to break up a party at Conn Terrace.
The year prior, 19-year-old Brian Anthony Muth was arrested for alcohol intoxication. After a friend signed him out of jail, Muth walked into the road, was hit by a tractor-trailer and pronounced dead on the scene.
A third UK student, Tevis Shaw, died in 2006 after walking off a cliff while camping in Red River Gorge. Though Shaw’s friends told authorities they had been drinking, the Wolfe County Coroner declined to release the results of Shaw’s toxicology report out of respect for the family.
That cluster of deaths put a renewed emphasis on drinking at UK in general. But IFC also has a history of attempts at curbing alcohol misuse. Archived Kernel editions from the 1990s show repeated attempts to reform IFC’s drinking policies.
One proposal, reported in the March 24, 1992 edition of the Kernel, described a policy brought to IFC by the Alcohol Revision Committee. The policy would require a security guard and designated drivers at each IFC party and for fraternities to post signs warning against underage drinking.
Two years later, IFC again attempted to reform their alcohol use by stating “only beer brought by individual students may be allowed at Greek house parties.” Any alcohol would be handed over to a third-party vendor who would oversee distribution. Underage students were supposed to wear wristbands so they would not get any alcohol. Additionally, the policy called for stricter enforcement of guest lists.
“The new policies, while a little strict, can only help chapters to avoid legal problems that could be detrimental,” then-UK student Phil Skiermont told the Kernel. Skiermont was a member of Phi Gamma Delta, a fraternity now on disciplinary probation for misuse of alcohol.
According to Kernel archives, the IFC president at the time – Jonathan Bruser – said that Panhellenic, the governing body for sororities, already had comprehensive policies. This new proposal centered on IFC because they were “more active in sponsoring open, informal parties.”
The threads identified by Skiermont and Bruser carried through to the alcohol violations committed by UK fraternities in the last year. IFC fraternities were cited for off-campus parties where alcohol was provided to underage students, often informal gatherings that spread past the fraternity.
A 2016 study from Monmouth University researcher Pietro Sasso and Old Dominion University researcher Alan Schwitzer asserts that alcohol abuse in fraternities is tied to social expectations.
Fraternity members believe alcohol lets them “have more positive associations from social interactions with others; engage in more gregarious behavior with others; feel more stimulated or aroused; or experience sexual gains.”
The pair also cite evidence that Greek organizations consume alcohol more than other groups on university campuses and that “Greek men report comparatively more use of, and more negative secondary negative effects from, alcohol than Greek women.”
According to Sasso and Schwitzer, this is because heavy alcohol consumption is a marker of traditional masculinity.
“Students may engage in heavy drinking, decline to confront peers regarding their alcohol misuse, or both, due to a culture which defines alcohol use as well as silence about its consequences as socially desirable,” Sasso and Schwitzer said.