Banned GW frat goes underground

The former Alpha Epsilon Pi house on 22nd St. NW is now occupied by Kappa Alpha.Photo by Josh Marks
The former Alpha Epsilon Pi house on 22nd St. NW is now occupied by Kappa Alpha.
Photo by Josh Marks

While the George Washington University chapter of Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi was shut down a year ago, its members continued to operate as an off-campus group for much of 2014, in apparent violation of university policies.

It was during that time that one member died from mixing drugs and alcohol in events unrelated to the group’s activities.

William Gwathmey, who was not Jewish, went to several nightclubs on Sept. 18 in the District, and consumed alcohol, cocaine and oxycodone, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. The 20-year-old junior was pronounced dead the next morning, from the “combined toxic effects” of the drugs and alcohol, according to the city’s medical examiner.

The university revoked AEPi’S Kappa Deuteron chapter’s recognition as a registered student organization citing more than a dozen hazing, drug and alcohol violations. The university evicted AEPi from its 22nd Street townhouse and kicked if off campus until at least the fall of 2017. In addition, the university maintained last fall that the off-campus group was banned from recruiting members on campus and other activities, but was still engaging in those activities.

According to Jon Pierce, spokesman for AEPi’s national organization, last semester the Supreme Board of Governors of AEPi International voted to remove the chapter’s charter; a final decision to close the chapter was made last month.

“Our chapter at George Washington University was closed earlier this year in consultation with the university. We look forward to returning to campus in the future and providing future generations of Jewish students with a Jewish fraternal experience,” said Pierce. “Our policies on risk management are very public and are available (on our website). We follow these policies strictly and are confident that, when we return to campus, it will be with a group that closely adheres to these rules and properly exhibits our Jewish values.”

AEPi is the largest Jewish fraternal organization in the world and is the only historically Jewish fraternity that is still actively Jewish.

“AEPi is actively teaching our members to be leaders within their Jewish community, to be advocates for Israel on their college campuses, teaching them how to be leaders when they graduate from college in the Jewish community. That’s our mission,” said Pierce.

However, the fraternity may well make a comeback on campus.

Kurtis Hiatt, a university spokesman, said in an email reply to Washington Jewish Week that “substantial efforts are made to encourage compliance with standards and policies that will lead to the group’s eventual return as a valued member of the university community and, as part of its educational efforts, GW routinely informs former student members of groups that have lost university recognition about Code provisions and the consequences associated with engaging in prohibited activities.”

But a GW student and former AEPi member, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of AEPi’s status, told WJW that he believes the chapter was being unfairly targeted — both by the university and the national organization — and that Gwathmey’s death unfairly played a role in the national organization’s decision to officially cut ties with the GW chapter.

“They decided we were not worth it from an insurance standpoint” because they didn’t want to potentially face a situation where another member could put a lawsuit on their hands, he said.

The national organization denied the accusation that Gwathmey’s death factored in the decision to close the chapter.

“The decision to close the AEPi chapter at George Washington was a very difficult one for the international office and involved a number of different factors.  The tragic incident involving brother Gwathmey was not the reason the chapter was closed.  The decision to close the chapter was in process well before then and related to a number of previous incidents, the chapter’s culture and the relationship issues we were having with University,” said Pierce.

The student also said that his was not the only fraternity to be disciplined recently.

“Almost every Greek chapter at GW is in trouble right now,” he said, referring to a recent front page headline in The Hatchet, the GW student newspaper, that read “Seven Greek organizations slapped with sanctions in two months.”

To honor the memory of Gwathmey, his family and four former members of AEPi set up a foundation to teach basketball skills to low-income students and purchase basketball equipment for schools in the District. The William Gwathmey Foundation’s GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $10,000 out of a short-term goal of $20,000, according to the GoFundMe website.

“Will was a great kid and very successful student and would have gone on to do amazing things,” said the former AEPi member. “I don’t think this tragic event speaks to who students at GW are or specifically anyone at our former fraternity. But I think it shines a light that there is an issue that takes place on college campuses, and people who don’t think that happens are kind of blind and not really looking at the bigger picture. But it definitely takes place. GW doesn’t necessarily stand out to any other school, but it obviously happens here as well.”

Strict alcohol policies at GW extend to on-campus Jewish organizations.

GW Hillel prohibits alcohol at sponsored events except for alumni or senior class events where everyone is over 21, according to GW Hillel executive director Rabbi Yoni Kaiser-Blueth.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president and director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), said that Chabad’s official policy is not to serve alcohol to anyone under the legal age of 21 except for wine in connection with Friday night Shabbat dinner and festival occasions.

“As Jewish organizations, we must be responsible and balance the need for joy with the important guidelines ensuring that our good work is not undone by noncompliance with the law,” Shemtov said.

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Drug-alcohol mix: How big a problem?

How big of a problem is mixing drugs and alcohol on college campuses?

College students mixing drugs and alcohol is not a new trend, said Delishia Pittman, assistant professor of counseling in George Washington University’s Department of Counseling and Human Development. But while the use of traditional club drugs such as Ecstasy is decreasing among young people, use of prescription drugs and opiates is on the rise.

“We’re seeing a significant number of students who come to college with existing or pre-existing mental health conditions, which certainly increases their risk of engaging in substance abuse behavior,” she said.

A recent survey by the American College Health Association found that around 15 percent of students misuse prescription drugs and about half binge drink.

According to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia), there has been a dramatic increase in deaths caused by a drug overdose.

Overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death, killing more people than motor vehicle accidents; prescription pain killers like oxycodone are blamed in around half of fatal overdoses.

Alcohol is a depressant that slows heart rate and impairs judgment. When combined with a narcotic such as oxycodone, vital body functions are slowed further. When a stimulant, or upper, such as cocaine is mixed with alcohol, the body receives competing signals. The natural defense mechanism to drinking too much is to pass out, but stimulants like cocaine keeps someone awake and alert and the drinking continues.

“Many adolescents and young adults do not understand the dangerous interactions from co-ingesting alcohol and other substances,” said Sean Esteban McCabe, research associate professor at the University of Michigan and a National Institute on Drug Abuse grantee. “For example, passing out can be a protective mechanism that stops people from drinking when they are approaching potentially dangerous blood-alcohol concentrations. However, using cocaine or prescription stimulants while drinking can potentially override this mechanism and this could lead to life-threatening consequences.”

— Josh Marks

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