An illegal fraternity and a life cut short

Another tragic, needless death brings unrecognized fraternities back under merited scrutiny

Nolan Burch, a Canisius High School graduate who turned 18 earlier this month, was a “sweet, wonderful kid,” who was well liked and popular among his classmates.

Although that’s how Burch’s family and friends will remember him, it’s not how Burch will be memorialized in the media and the public eye.

Because Burch, who died after drinking large quantities of liquor at a West Virginia University frat party, is the newest face of an extremely troubling trend that has cost too many young lives – so many that Burch is not the first, but only the latest college student to represent the dangers of extreme drinking on college campuses.

According to individuals present at the party where Burch fell unconscious and collapsed, the teenager was challenged to consume excessive amounts of alcohol, to the point that when police and EMTs arrived to the fraternity, he was unresponsive, had no pulse and died 36 hours later.

Burch’s death serves as reminder of the dangers that can accompany extreme underage drinking – especially for new college students, recently arrived to campus and unfamiliar to the party scene, but eager to change that.

Drinking and partying is undeniably an aspect of many college students’ lives. This is especially true at WVU, which is known for its reputation as a party school and often appears near the top of the Princeton Review’s list annual of “biggest party schools.” Although much of the drinking that happens on college campuses is underage and technically illegal, it’s an elements of university life.

Hazing, binge drinking and death are not.

The issue of hazing, in its many insidious forms, from alcohol abuse to sexual assault, has blazed across headlines on a regular basis recently. Increased awareness is the first step in combating this trend, and preventing it from becoming an accepted but ignored, behind-closed-doors problem.

But what’s gone largely unrecognized on a national scale is the underlying issue in Burch’s death and a problem that exacerbates the problematic behaviors that contributed to the scene at that party.

Burch wasn’t just at any frat party. He was at a decertified, unauthorized fraternity.

The fraternity in question, Kappa Sigma, is national organization but at Western Virginia, the chapter had been shut down, for reasons not yet disclosed by either fraternity officials or the university.

Although the details of this particular shutdown chapter may be murky, UB and The Spectrum are all too aware of the problem posed by illegal fraternities.

As reported last spring by former managing editor Lisa Khoury, a large-scale investigation of the campus’ unrecognized fraternities revealed the violence and abuse suffered by students involved with the organizations, and the challenges UB faces in banning and eliminating these groups.

Kappa Sigma, the unrecognized frat where Burch collapsed, is also one of the illegal groups identified in Khoury’s article. These frats at UB exemplify the dangers of unregulated, out of control fraternities – pledges reported being beat up, forced to fight one another, being locked outside in the cold with little to no clothing, eating cat food and, of course, being forced to drink excessive amounts of alcohol.

These are not the experiences new college students expect when they arrive on campus – or in a frat house. These are dangerous, violent environments that encourage abuse and lead to tragic outcomes.

Burch’s death is horrifying and tragic. So is the presence and ongoing existence of the organizations that encourage the conditions that ended the college freshman’s life.

These illegal frats – at UB, WVU and across the country – must be weeded out, penalized and eliminated for good.

What happened to Burch has surely happened to many others. But maybe his death can help prevent such tragedy from occurring yet again.