Cornell fraternity hazing death a wakeup call to all parents

The recent hazing tragedy at Cornell reminds all parents to remind their children to act responsibly, to avoid hazing and alcohol abuse, and to remember that some students are very susceptible to harm.

Cornell Fraternity Hazing Death A Wakeup Call To All Parents

by Elizabeth (Liz) Berney, Esq.

Decades ago, as a freshman at Cornell University, I walked into the women’s bathroom late one night and discovered a male student repeatedly throwing up on the floor, after having imbibed what seemed to be gallons of Sangria. He was semi-suicidal.

I wish I could say that I immediately ran for help, but he begged me not to tell anyone, so I did the next best thing: I spent the rest of the night talking to him and looking after him, making sure that he didn’t do anything more harmful to himself. In the morning, he was better. The incident made me into a lifelong teetotaler – I was so horrified and shaken up by the piles of red vomit he emitted throughout that night and the psychological impact that alcohol had on him.

At last week’s Seder, after four cups of grape juice, the discussion turned to an alcohol-related fraternity hazing death at Cornell a few weeks ago. (My sisters are also Cornell alums, and my niece is currently a student there, as are many students from Great Neck and surrounding communities.)

The official version as to what occurred is incomplete, and police and university investigations are ongoing. However, even though all the facts are not yet available, the story deserves our attention, and I felt impelled to write about it. This senseless, heartbreaking tragedy is a stark reminder to every parent to instill in his or her children the dangers of alcohol abuse and hazing, and the need to call for help immediately when in doubt about another student’s physical condition.

Cornell sophomore George Desdunes was just 19 years old. He was an only child and the first person in his family to attend college. His father had recently passed away. Thus, George’s death on Feb. 25 leaves his poor mother completely alone. Mr. Desdunes was black, hailed from Brooklyn, and was acclaimed as a cheerful, friendly, spiritual person.

According to a statement by Cornell Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy, Mr. Desdunes was provided alcohol “while in the care of certain members and associate members” of fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon and became incapacitated. Murphy stated, “Even though the members and associate members recognized the condition Desdunes was in, they failed to call for medical care. He subsequently died.”

Unconfirmed rumors (which may or may not be accurate) detail that the following occurred: SAE freshmen pledges were encouraged to kidnap and haze upperclassmen in their fraternity. Six freshman SAE pledges kidnapped Mr. Desdunes and forced or strongly encouraged him to drink significant amounts of alcohol.

According to some, Mr. Desdunes was on medication which did not mix with alcohol; others say that he had no known medical conditions. He passed out on the sofa in SAE’s living room – but no one called for help, perhaps thinking that he would “sleep it off,” as may have occurred previously. In the morning, Mr. Desdunes was found unconscious, and was brought to the hospital and died.

Afterwards, Cornell rescinded SAE’s recognition as a Cornell fraternity (barring SAE for at least five years), placed a moratorium on fraternity parties, and required students living at SAE to find other housing. The six pledges involved in the incident are no longer at Cornell, and may face civil and criminal liability. Their academic plans have been destroyed, and they face a lifetime of guilt. In other words, this turned into a nightmare for everyone.

The George Desdunes tragedy is not an isolated incident. Deaths and injuries from hazing and alcohol abuse at college campuses are a nationwide scourge.

According to, every year there is at least one hazing death on college campuses. This has continued even though hazing is a crime in most states, including New York. (Hazing also usually violates New York’s drinking age law.)

There is a famous old legal case called Vosburg v. Putney, about an 11-year-old boy who lightly kicked a 14-year-old boy in the knee. Although most children would not have been damaged by such a kick, the 14-year-old had a weak knee – and the light kick caused him to lose the use of his leg. The case is taught to first-year law students to exemplify that for certain wrongs, one “takes his victim as he finds him,” and is responsible for whatever damage results.

The larger message is that people are fragile, and some of us are more susceptible than others.

With alcohol and hazing, it’s too easy to underestimate how someone will react and the harm that can occur. What seems like harmless fun may result in injury, trauma, or death.

Hopefully, the recent tragedy at Cornell will shake all of us up, and remind us to remind our children to act responsibly.

(Author’s Note:  This article was first published in the May 3, 2011 Great Neck News, New Hyde Park Courier and Williston Times.  You may reprint it on your website if you mention the newspapers where it was first published.  Please also mention my website.  Liz)


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