Beatings, rapes, torture, humiliation, branding: Inside US 'fratboy' culture

File photo of a fraternity party. Source / 123rf
File photo of a fraternity party. Source / 123rf

A death covered up. A boy who wanted to belong to a "brotherhood" waking up in intensive care beaten, bloody and branded.

A girl who didn't report her rape, because she knew authorities would sweep it under the carpet.

This is the sickeningly brutal underbelly of the American college system unmasked on Four Corners tonight.

As the lawsuits, rapes, torture, bullying, alcohol and testosterone-fuelled atrocities mount, America's college fraternity culture is exposed as an elite club of shame which turns a blind eye to incidents of hazing, harassment and physical assault - all in the name of acceptance, the BBC documentary reveals.

It comes in the wake of scandals such as that of university student rapist Brock Turner, and looks at the effect on female victims.

But it also turns the spotlight on how many men "pledging" to join fraternities are abused, humiliated and damaged - even killed - in the process; and why many colleges want it kept a dirty little secret.

The documentary looks at the pledge task gone wrong which killed Harrison Kowiak during an initiation period known as "Hell Week" eight years ago.

A pledge task is a challenge students need to complete to join the fraternity.

Since Kowiak's death, at least 22 students in America have died while pledging to a fraternity, the documentary says.


Many more are still alive but carry the scars. Terrance Bennett is one of them.

He barely survived a week of hazing, including being forced to his knees in the "hostage position", blindfolded, stripped naked, beaten with boat paddles, lying amid mud and broken glass.

He woke up in intensive care, beaten so badly "I didn't think I was going to make it", he tells the program.

Terrance Bennett's fraternity branding. Source / ABC
Terrance Bennett's fraternity branding. Source / ABC

"They'd split my skin open, the blood had pooled and became infected, my liver started to shut down. They told me, they told me I came really close," he said.

Four surgeries later, he still carries the very visible reminder given to him by his fraternity "brothers": a brand in the shape of a triangle, burnt into his skin.

"So they have like a cattle brand that they had specially made for us and they heated it up over fire like they do with cows and I got held down," he said.

He was told while still in hospital he'd been accepted into the fraternity which landed him there.

Instead of joining, he took legal action.

The Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity handed him an out-of-court settlement, but he still wants to sue the individual brothers he says were involved.


Kowiak's family has opened up on the cover-up surrounding the death of their son, killed during what was known as "Hell Week".

"You don't expect to send your child off to college and not come back, you don't expect them to go and study and come back in a coffin," says mother Lianne of her son's fatal attempt to join a fraternity to "get the full college experience".

That "experience" saw him hospitalised with head injuries which ultimately killed him, and which his would-be "brothers" tried to explain away as a football injury.

"It was 11.30 at night and the phone just rang, it was Harrison's fraternity," Lianne remembers.

"I remember him telling me that there had been an accident that had happened on campus, they were playing football and he fell down very hard and hurt his head, that's what we were told.

"I took the flight up and I remember the brother and another brother from the fraternity that Harrison was pledging, had picked me up at the airport and they were very upset and drove me immediately over to the trauma centre but it was too late, he was alive but frankly just barely."

As the cover story started to unravel within hours, the family commissioned their own investigation. They now believe he died during an initiation ritual.

Harrison Kowiak's hopes of getting 'the full college experience' killed him, his family says. Source / ABC
Harrison Kowiak's hopes of getting 'the full college experience' killed him, his family says. Source / ABC

"It was Hell Week. They were, drove about 20 miles off campus, was an open field, there was no, no lights, no electricity there," Lianne says.

"The fraternity brothers were wearing dark coloured clothing, the two pledges were told to run from one end of the field to the other end of the field and touch or get the sacred rock.

"Once they started running across the field, they were being tackled by the fraternity brothers who were football players, it was just that one hit where he hit the ground so hard that he had injured his head."

The university, the fraternity and the individuals involved arranged an out-of-court settlement with the Kowiak family without admitting liability.

The documentary delves beyond the partying and booze-filled antics as it follows the 10-week "pledging period" fraternity brother wannabes - an estimated 100,000 of them go through the process each year - must pass to belong.

Lawyer Doug Fierbeg, who for 20 years has worked on lawsuits relating to hazing, tells the documentary makers "for years Americans have been denied the truth about how dangerous fraternities are to young people and families".


Another student, Marissa Branchard, is testament to that "truth", saying the fraternity obsession leaves students "dangerously vulnerable".

"They're totally in the position of power in these situations," she said.

"They're setting up the parties, they're in control of alcohol, they're in control of the set up like, it's at their house, it's their stomping ground.

"They want to feel masculine, they want to hook up with girls, they want to party, they want to feel cool and there's honestly like a pressure like there's a time in the night where you see a switch in the party."

Two years ago she went to a frat party that spiralled out of her control.

"I had a beer and then the next thing I know I like don't remember anything like just such a clear like black out that I've never experienced before especially like for how little I drank before it and then how fast it happened."

She woke up at an apartment, "in this bed like with no clothes" and had "no idea where I was".

"I was so scared. I had some like bruises on my arms, looked like I was like grabbed and I had like some on my legs too," she says.

"So like I obviously knew something happened, and that was really hard and like so I just wanted to go home and shower and just forget about it."

Most allegations of rape and assault at US universities are first dealt with but the university themselves, and Branchard says there's little faith in reporting the crimes.

"I can't even name one person that has successfully gone through every step of the process and gotten their assailant expelled or suspended. Not one person," she says.

The documentary also follows brothers from the Gazoni Family, a fraternity in central Florida, complete with a stripper pole in the middle of one of its building.

It unmasks a pledging system under which prospective members are assigned tasks from the menial and slavish to the humiliating, dangerous and deadly.


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