Not all of the Greek houses at Chico State have university oversight, meaning there’s little in the way of accountability
A few Sundays ago, around 6 p.m., officers from the Chico Police Department responded to Enloe Medical Center, where a college student had been admitted with a gunshot wound to the hand. Apparently, what happened was, while showing his .40 caliber semi-automatic handgun to a friend in his fraternity house, Alpha Gamma Rho, it accidentally went off.
“Fortunately, he didn’t hit someone else or hurt himself any worse than he did,” said Chico PD Lt. Rob Merrifield.
That seems to be the general consensus. But it does raise some questions, including: Aren’t there rules regarding such things? Well, yes and no.
Alpha Gamma Rho, or AGR, is an agriculture-centered fraternity that is not affiliated with the university. What that means is, while it is made up of Chico State students, has close ties with the College of Agriculture and its house is on Ivy Street in the south-campus area, AGR has no oversight from Chico State. So, rules regarding drinking in the house, minimum GPAs and hazing—which all affiliated fraternities and sororities must abide by or else risk sanctions—do not apply.
AGR is one of six unaffiliated Greek houses in town. Three, including AGR, have national chapters and therefore some oversight. The other three—Alpha Chi, Tau Gamma Theta and Delta Psi Delta (a sorority and two fraternities, respectively)—are 100 percent local and therefore answer to no one, according to Malcolm McLemore, head of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs (FSA) at Chico State.
“Our organizations have chosen to live by the standards of the university. We put policies and standards in place to keep students safe and help the organizations to move forward in a beneficial way,” he said during a recent interview. “Not all of them want to live by those rules, and some have chosen not to be a part of the university because of that. For example, none of our organizations are allowed to drink alcohol in the house. For some, that’s a sticking point.”
Two unaffiliated houses chose to disaffiliate rather than carry out sanctions against them. The first, Sigma Chi, was suspended in 2013 for brewing alcohol in the house. The second, Theta Chi, was found in violation of several policies, regarding alcohol, programming and recruitment, McLemore said.
For many students, joining a house is a big part of going to college. Fraternities and sororities offer seemingly endless opportunities to socialize and network, in addition to offering housing and meals. Beyond all the visible benefits, though, students in affiliated houses—there are 24 at Chico State, representing 1,600 students—have the support and resources of the university. Only affiliated houses can set up booths at certain events and participate in formal rush festivities. And, had AGR been affiliated, for example, Toomire would have answered to—but not necessarily faced punishment by—the Interfraternity Council, the FSA or both.
Visually, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between an affiliated and unaffiliated Greek house. After all, they display their letters proudly.
Sam Franzoia, a senior and a member of the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity, says he is proud to be part of an affiliated house and that he appreciates the rules set forth by the university.
“You’re going to have to follow rules and be held accountable anywhere in life, especially after college,” Franzoia said. “I’m glad we try to abide by all the rules they set forth.”
In addition to his fraternity membership—he is also past president of his house—Franzoia serves as a paraprofessional for the Interfraternity Council. In that capacity, he acts as a liaison between the fraternities and the university. And, despite what Hollywood might lead us to believe, joining a sorority or fraternity isn’t just about climbing the social ladder and working on one’s alcohol tolerance.
“Every year we put on a new-member orientation, where we explain the standards for Greek life at Chico State,” Franzoia explained. “Essentially, we try to get the point across that if you’re here for the party, you might want to look somewhere else. Because it is about more than just the party—it’s leadership, school, graduation and getting all you can out of your college experience.”
Many of Chico State’s regulations regarding the recognition of fraternities and sororities stem from the Feb. 2, 2005, hazing death of 21-year-old student Matthew Carrington. At the time, he was pledging the unaffiliated Chi Tau fraternity and undergoing a ritual in which he and his fellow pledges were forced to drink large quantities of water and do calisthenics. Carrington’s brain swelled due to water intoxication and he died.
The following year, Chico State re-evaluated its policies regarding fraternities and sororities, particularly in the areas of hazing and alcohol. “We’re coming up on the 10-year mark,” McLemore said. “Currently, we’re looking at a process of looking over our policies again.”
Overall, however, McLemore says he’s seen positive change over the past decade. He was initiated into Kappa Alpha Psi the same semester Carrington died. That had a profound effect on him and other Greeks at the time, he said.
“A lot of responsibility was put on us. At the same time, a lot of us came out of that situation really great Greek leaders,” he said. “We had our fun—but it was responsible recklessness.”
But while momentum seems to be positive on the whole, Chico State’s fraternities and sororities have attracted negative attention since 2006. Both McLemore and Franzoia look to 2012 as a black eye on the system. That year, after the alcohol-related death of 21-year-old Mason Sumnicht, who was rushing the Sigma Pi fraternity, Chico State President Paul Zingg decided to bring down the hammer on the Greek system and suspend every single house. At the time, 10 out of 26 recognized houses were tied up in Student Judicial Affairs for violating alcohol and hazing policies.
Following Sumnicht’s death—and the alcohol- or drug-related deaths of three other college students in Chico that year—the university tasked each organization with submitting a self-evaluation and completing a Safe Place Violence Prevention Education program, both requirements for reinstatement. Administration also put into place new guidelines for parties, as well as clear sanctions for violations. Today, according to Chico State spokesman Joe Wills, one chapter, fraternity Gamma Zeta Alpha, is suspended for hazing violations dating back to 2014. That suspension is schedule to end next year.
More recently, the Chico Police Department, which is responsible for answering calls to non-university-owned properties (including unafilliated Greek houses) in the south-campus area, has successfully championed several anti-partying ordinances, including one banning indoor furniture on front porches and another banning “unruly gatherings.” Just this year, Chico PD and the University Police Department came together to form a new memorandum of understanding, which calls for the UPD to respond to more student calls at nearby off-campus residences.
“I would have to say that, generally, we don’t respond to any more calls at unrecognized fraternities than we do at some of the places that happen to be just big party houses,” Merrifield said.
Drew Calandrella, vice president of Student Affairs at Chico State, agrees. “I think it is fair to say that some, though not all, of the unaffiliated houses, continue to host large parties that offer large amounts of alcohol to underaged students and community members and these parties sometimes get out of control,” he wrote in an email. “But so do other houses that just house students from Chico and Butte College.”
Speaking of AGR in particular, Merrifield said that Chico PD hasn’t received an undue number of calls to that house. He also hasn’t seen many incidents involving guns in student housing. The gun that Toomire shot himself with was legally registered to him, he confirmed. Toomire declined to comment on the incident.
“I’m sure there are hundreds of firearms in the south-campus area that people aren’t hurting each other with,” Merrifield said.
The university has no policy regarding students owning firearms and keeping them in off-campus housing, Calandrella said. Many fraternities and sororities, however, do have house rules prohibiting such items, according to Franzoia. He pointed to liability insurance, which each resident of most, if not all, houses—at least those affiliated with national organizations—help pay for in the form of dues.
An email seeking comment from the Pacific region representative of AGR was not returned by press time. It is therefore unclear if students living in Chico’s AGR house—which, according to its website, is recognized by the national organization—pay for liability insurance.
Chico State has long held a reputation for being a party school. But university administrators—and even some students—have been combating that image in earnest over the past decade. That’s involved cracking down on alcohol and hazing at fraternities and sororities, as well as working with the university and city police departments to stymie the drinking culture.
“I believe that the campus has moved quite nicely from the tired old ‘party school’ image, though some folks locally and many alumni help to [perpetuate] the image, mostly waxing nostalgically about their ‘good old college days,’” Calandrella said.
Carrington’s mother, Debbie Smith, has maintained a relationship with Chico State even after the death of her son at a rogue fraternity house. She feels strongly that the university has done a good job of implementing policies to eliminate hazing, her main concern. In the past 10 years, she’s worked tirelessly on behalf of other parents and young people—speaking publicly, backing legislation and creating a nonprofit combating hazing—determined to see that what happened to Carrington doesn’t happen to anybody else.
“Chico did not kill Matt; ignorance killed Matt,” Smith said during a recent phone interview. “We don’t want these things to keep happening.”
In September 2006, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Matt’s Law, which turned death or serious injury due to a hazing ritual into a penal code felony, rather than a misdemeanor under the education code. Four of Carrington’s fraternity brothers pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for his death.
Carrington’s fraternity, the now-defunct Chi Tau, was unaffiliated with Chico State when he was a pledge. Smith didn’t know that, nor did she realize the difference it could have made.
“Before Matt’s Law, you had to be affiliated with the school,” Smith said about facing even a misdemeanor charge related to hazing. “Now, if a group were to do something hazing-wise, whether it’s a fraternity or just a little made-up house, a sports team or whatever, they can still be held accountable.”
She maintains, however, the importance of being proactive as a parent in finding out what kids are getting into at school.
“Ask the questions; push the envelope a little,” she said. “The more aware we can be of the situation, the more open conversations we can have with our kids. That’s what makes the difference.”
Franzoia echoed her sentiments, saying he sees value in orientations and educational outreach when it comes to rules for fraternities and sororities. Of course, members of houses that are unaffiliated with the school are not required to attend those orientations.
“With any organization or group without oversight, you’re kind of without boundaries and borders, so the possibilities are there,” McLemore said. “If you have alumni and advisers, the closest might be in Sacramento or the Bay Area. So, there’s no supervision to help them out.”
Generally speaking, much of the university’s oversight comes down to self-regulation. In order for McLemore to know that a house is violating drinking or hazing policies, for example, a student would have to tell him about it. This practice came under fire in 2012, when so many of the Greek organizations were in violation of one policy or another. However, McLemore said he believes it does work.
“I will get a call that this organization is doing this,” he said. “If they are recognized, I can go directly to them and have conversations with them, their nationals and alums to rectify the problem. If they’re unrecognized, it gets to a point where police have to deal with it.”
For Smith’s part, she’s hoping to soon start a Chico State chapter of her new nonprofit, the Anti Hazing Awareness Movement, aka AHA Movement. The goal is to build a network of peer mentors and ambassadors who are trained to deal with hazing and other issues students routinely deal with. Basically, she said, they’re “people you can talk to.”
“I think to change the culture of basically a whole city is about evolution, not revolution. It just takes time,” McLemore said.