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Illinois State sorority returns after a year-long suspension for hazing and abuse

 An emblem on a beige brick wall reads Illinois State University, gladly we learn and teach. A staircase is in the background.
Emily Bollinger

An Illinois State University sorority is cleared to resume activity this fall after the lifting of a yearlong suspension for hazing and other alleged abuses.

The 50-year-old Lambda Epsilon chapter of the umbrella sorority Zeta Phi Beta was suspended in May 2022 after multiple members came forward — some denouncing their membership altogether. They described a cycle of underground initiation practices involving months of physical and psychological abuse, triggering an investigation that led to Lambda Epsilon’s 12-month suspension.

A former ISU student who joined Lambda Epsilon in 2018 reported allegations of hazing and what she describes as brainwashing to Zeta Phi Beta. She provided written and video evidence of the initiation process to Lambda Epsilon, which according to the source, included a restricted diet of bread and water, physical abuse and a cult-like atmosphere conducted in secret.

The young woman is still an active member of Zeta Phi Beta and requested to remain anonymous, fearing retaliation.

Emails obtained by WGLT describe pledges being beaten, pushed, slapped, scratched and paddled. The source said the group seeking initiation had food thrown at them. Video evidence confirms food smeared on the clothes and hair of young women linking arms, with a large group shouting at them.

A complaint sent to Zeta Phi Beta headquarters said a senior member of the Lamba Epsilon chapter threw wet cotton balls at pledges, called the whistleblower fat and ugly and screamed demeaning comments at her nightly for hours. She said she experienced panic attacks and was made to feel guilty for wanting to leave the sorority. The source left ISU prior to graduation and currently lives out of state, hoping to return and finish her degree.

Hazing is not new

“Hazing is hundreds if not thousands of years old,” said Matthew Hughey, a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut. Hughey studies and has written about the history and culture of Black Greek-letter organizations. He also is a member of Phi Beta Sigma, the brother fraternity to Zeta Phi Beta.

“When the first Greek letter organization was begun in 1776 — that’s Phi Beta Kappa, the prestigious honor society —there’s evidence of hazing within a few years of its founding.”

According to Hughey, hazing within Greek organizations in the modern context has become more extreme, more demeaning and increasingly violent. Hazing has led to serious injury and, in some cases, death.

In 2011, seven Zeta Phi Beta members at the University of Maryland were charged with allegedly choking, punching and beating a pledging student with an oak paddle. Charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. The following year, a UC-Berkeley student named Britteny Starling sued Zeta Phi Beta for failing to prevent hazing. Starling alleged the initiation process forced her to take a medical leave from school.

In a phone call with the source who contacted WGLT, the Lambda Epsilon pledge said she was beaten with a paddle and slapped on the back and wrists repeatedly — for weeks.

Leslie Mason also joined Lambda Epsilon in 2018, as a junior, as part of the same "line." Mason confirmed the whistleblower’s story, saying she endured beatings with a paddle, called “the cut," and other late-night hazing rituals, called “set," almost nightly from October 2018 through December, when the line was officially accepted into the group.

“We really didn’t have a life,” Mason said. “We had to live together. I felt like a slave because all the stuff that we had to do— mind you, it’s only six of us and it’s a lot of them. And we weren’t just dealing with the women in the sorority on campus already. We were dealing with women that were in a sorority as well, but older.”

Undergraduate chapters are mentored by graduate chapters that consist of women with undergraduate degrees who participate in service activities and raise money for scholarships and charitable causes.

Abuse allegedly also came from members of Lambda Epsilon’s graduate sponsor, Zeta Zeta, based in south suburban Chicago. Zeta Zeta ran the above board “paper” process accepting new members into the sorority. Mason said she was hazed by one member of Zeta Zeta and several alums who had gone through Lambda Epsilon. The Bloomington-Normal graduate chapter, Beta Iota Zeta, is unaffiliated with Lambda Epsilon.

“I felt really depressed,” Mason said. “I know we all felt drained. Looking back at it, I always had a lingering question in the back of my head, like, 'Leslie, why are you doing this?'"

According to Hughey, the ritualistic nature of the initiation process makes it nearly impossible to weigh the pros and cons of participating.

“This is an emotional issue; this is a salient issue in terms of tradition — and there is no unbiased or objective place from which to view that process,” said Hughey.

“Honestly, I really feel like the whole experience was just evil,” Mason said. "But I had to be OK with it because everybody else was OK with it. I knew that if I did not do it I wouldn’t earn my respect. They wouldn’t talk to me. They would treat me different.”

“Paper” vs. “Made”

Zeta Phi Beta declined multiple requests for an interview. Working through a spokesperson, an email statement to WGLT from president and CEO Stacie N.C. Grant declined to comment on Lambda Epsilon specifically. Grant said Zeta Phi Beta "is a non-hazing, non-pledging organization,” adding they “follow a thorough investigation process and have strict disciplinary procedures in place to ensure that the emotional, mental and physical safety of both members and non-members are protected.”

Zeta Phi Beta banned pledging in 1990. The sorority’s official anti-hazing policy states that people engaging in hazing activity risk sanctions and/or criminal referral. Hazing is described by them as any action that “brings about physical, mental, emotional or psychological harm,” and “is vulgar, abusive, physically exhausting or dangerous,” among other definitions.

In place of the previous initiation process, which included hazing activities conducted out in the open, Zeta Phi Beta’s ban on pledging and anti-hazing policies did not stop them from occurring.

“As a consequence of this paper process, the old process did not disappear,” Hughey said.

Instead, two processes run in parallel. Graduate chapters conduct interviews and information sessions, while hazing activities were thrust underground and out of sight — and are technically optional. Hughey confirmed that those who refuse hazing are typically called “paper” and have less status and respect in the sorority. Those who get hazed are “made.”

Hazing goes underground

Courtney Dandridge joined Lambda Epsilon in fall 2017. She says she was attracted to the sorority as a way to build a community on campus.

“It was really nice to see people that were kind to each other,” said Dandridge. “There was a lot of racism happening at Illinois State ... and Zeta felt like home. They took care of me. Some of my closest friends joined that organization, and I was like, this is great; this is for me.”

Dandridge confirmed Mason and the whistleblower’s stories. Her line had to decide as a group if they wanted to be made— they were either all in, or all out. Dandridge told WGLT she struggled with the physical and emotional trauma initiation caused.

While pledging, Dandridge also was enrolled in ROTC and nearly lost her scholarship when early morning sessions conflicted with all-night “setting” with Lambda Epsilon. Dandridge currently serves in the Illinois National Guard and is studying to be a chaplain. But she has struggled to grapple with the trauma she endured.

During a National Guard deployment to Africa, her superiors gave her an ultimatum to address her mental health. She reported to inpatient treatment at Strong Hope in Utah upon returning to the states.

Mason, Dandridge and the anonymous source still say they found value in Greek life and don’t regret the reasons they joined. But they also recognize that many of their relationships with other sorority sisters were built through what they each called “trauma bonding.”

“If the only bond that I had with my sister is, ‘Remember that one time they blindfolded us and put us in a trunk and dropped us off in the middle of nowhere,' which actually happened,” said Dandridge, “then what are we sisters for?”

The ‘bad apple’ scenario

Black Greek-letter organizations have been important vehicles for social capital and racial uplift by engaging in civic education, public policy work, philanthropy, community service, community organizing and civil disobedience.

And there may be some benefits to hazing. By building trust, solidarity and conformity, Hughey said hazing is “an effective way of teaching respect, discipline and loyalty to both on another’s peers, as well as to the organization.”

“While the violence and especially injury and death to people is something that has to be rectified immediately,” Hughey said, “there is also some evidence that shows there’s some positive outcomes from hazing. Research shows that a little bit of hazing and a whole lot of hazing are associated with negative outcomes, which means that there’s kind of a sweet spot in the middle.”

As hazing behavior escalated and public discourse expressed collective dismay and concern over hazing, the National Pan-Hellenic Council, a collective of nine Black Greek-letter organizations including Zeta Phi Beta, met to make recommendations about how to resolve hazing. This led to Zeta Phi Beta's 1990 ban on pledging and formation of official anti-hazing policies.

“Hazing was either seen as symptomatic of a larger cultural problem with Greek life writ large, or people approached it as a ‘bad apple’ scenario, in which supposedly violent-prone individuals used the Greek life system to activate their violent pathologies on other people,” said Hughey. “That debate continues today.”

Resuming activity and oversight

According to Zeta Phi Beta’s website, Lambda Epsilon filed an appeal to the May 2022 suspension and paid a $500 fine, effectively releasing the sorority to resume activity on May 12. Illinois State University did not suspend the chapter, but upheld Zeta Phi Beta’s decision.

An email from ISU Assistant Dean of Sorority and Fraternity Life Kari Murphy said, “the Dean of Students Office work(s) closely with a local sorority or fraternity chapter advisor and national organization to create a return agreement for reestablishing a chapter on campus.”

However, the women who experienced Lambda Epsilon’s hazing process firsthand are not confident things will change. And Mason said the sorority has been here before.

“The same thing happened to a line a few years ago,” she said, citing a previous suspension that shut down the sorority at ISU. “I remember this line going to another school and begging them to haze them. That’s how that cycle started all over again and trickled down to us.”

A meeting between Lambda Epsilon advisors and ISU has yet to be scheduled.

“I believe if they do get reinstated on campus again, they’re just going to do it again,” Mason said.

Emails obtained by WGLT indicate the whistleblower’s allegations were taken seriously by Zeta Phi Beta headquarters with no threat of retaliation. Mason and Dandridge confirmed this to be their experience, though both say they were bullied by Lambda Epsilon members for exposing the sorority and denouncing their membership.

Murphy confirmed all remaining undergraduate members of Lambda Epsilon have graduated. By email, she said her office “will work with the chapter advisory team to educate them on the student code of conduct and create a timeline for when the first membership intake will happen.”

“Staff in the Sorority and Fraternity Life office work closely with all Greek chapters affiliated with Illinois State to foster a positive and healthy experience for all students involved,” said Murphy’s email, which further recommended all questions be directed to Zeta Phi Beta.

Additional messages to local and regional Zeta Phi Beta leadership were either not returned or passed to international headquarters.

Greek life is big business

Zeta Phi Beta was founded in 1920 by five Black women at Howard University. According to their website, membership exceeds 100,000 women, with hundreds of chapters worldwide. The nonprofit’s tax records indicate $2.5 million in net revenue in the 2020-21 fiscal year, up from $780,000 the previous year. The national organization and Illinois State University do not publicize membership dues, which vary by state.

The University of Arizona’s website indicates that historically Black sororities, including Zeta Phi Beta, charge an average $850 intake fee, plus $200 annually for member dues. The Eta Pi chapter at Oklahoma State University charges up to $1,300 in intake fees. University of Arizona’s website further states that intake fees must be paid in full; no payment plan is available.

In short, sororities are big business. And in the case of Zeta Phi Beta, it is also exclusive. Membership in Zeta Phi Beta is by invitation only; undergraduate members must be enrolled at a four-year institution and maintain a 2.75 grade point average.

The national organization’s website states, “The required way to show formal interest in membership is attending an Informational Interest Meeting.” Invitations are given to women who have “demonstrated a commitment to scholarship, service, sisterhood and finer womanhood.”

However, Mason and Dandridge said initiation isn't always passed down from the international organization to the graduate chapter, Zeta Zeta, which makes recommendations to Lambda Epsilon and runs the paper process.

A member of another Zeta Phi Beta graduate chapter who requested to remain anonymous says anti-hazing policies have not trickled down to undergraduate chapters, some of which need better guidance from their graduate sponsors. This person suggested that support from the local Zeta Iota Beta chapter could result in better oversight.

But Mason said a lack of guidance is not the problem.

“There are a lot of people that are in Greek organizations that work everyday jobs,” she said. “Some of these women that were hazing us are nurses, psychologists, teachers — are a part of the school system. You see these people every day. You don’t know who’s part of an organization and is going to try and protect them.”

Because Lambda Epsilon has no undergraduate members on campus, Murphy said Zeta Phi Beta will be recognized, but the chapter will not be active until they have at least five undergraduate members. The three women who spoke with WGLT said hazing and other banned behavior often go unreported or are brushed aside, in part because of faculty and staff’s affiliations with Greek organizations.

“When we did try to come to (ISU) about it, nothing was being done,” said Mason, adding she was hesitant to report the sorority because she participated in hazing the lines behind her.

"At that point, I didn’t want to speak out anymore because I was scared of getting in trouble," she said. "But now, two years later, I can’t keep letting fear be a thorn in my side. I have to face my fear and speak out about it, or it’s going to continue to happen.”

Lambda Epsilon is not the only Greek organization at Illinois State to face scrutiny. In January, the Kappa Sigma fraternity was suspended for nearly three years for hazing, vandalism containing LGBTQ slurs and other offenses. The dean of students additionally lists Alpha Gamma Rho, Pi Kappa Phi and Sigma Alpha Epsilon as groups who lost recognition for conduct violations.

As a sociologist, Hughey believes transparency and accountability can lead to positive outcomes for fraternities and sororities.

“The place to start for these organizations is to address reality and be evidence-based in their decision making, rather than sticking their head in the sand and saying 'This is not an issue, we don’t do this here, this is only an issue of the bad apples,' or saying we’re going to double down on this paper process and that’s the way it’s going to work,” he said. “Neither of these seem to be working. We need leadership that is courageous enough to admit the realities.”

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Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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