45 Mill Street -- student died

This is the rooming house at 45 Mill St. in Athens where an OU freshman was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead early Monday morning, Nov. 12.

Ohio University announced Tuesday that the local chapter of the Sigma Pi fraternity is now permanently “expelled” from campus, for multiple violations of OU’s policies regarding hazing and alcohol use.

This news comes after the university launched a Student Code of Conduct investigation into the Epsilon chapter of the Sigma Pi fraternity early last November after news broke of an OU student dying at an off-campus residence. That Mill Street rooming house, the university has alleged, was an unofficial annex of the fraternity.

The student, Collin Wiant, 18, who allegedly was a pledge of the fraternity chapter at the time, was found unresponsive at 45 Mill St. on Nov. 12, 2018, The NEWS previously reported. OU initiated a cease-and-desist order for all organizational activities for the fraternity chapter a day later.

According to documents of the Student Code of Conduct violation hearings provided Tuesday by the university, the fraternity was found, through a preponderance of evidence standard, to have violated 10 different statutes in the Student Code of Conduct. Those include:

• Hazing – endangerment. Hazing – brutality. Hazing – coerced consumption. Hazing – coerced activities. 

• Damage to property – destruction or damage.

• Alcoholic beverages violation – selling/distribution of alcoholic beverages. Alcoholic beverages violation – failing to ensure under-aged students did not possess alcoholic beverages at a organization-sponsored event.

• Controlled substance and/or drug violation – unlawful use or possession of illegal drugs.

• Harmful behavior – physical harm or threat of harm to any person. Harmful behavior – reckless action that poses a risk of harm to others.

The Code of Conduct hearing board cited several witnesses who made reference to pledges being hit, including by belts. Multiple witnesses alleged that pledges were forced to eat foods such as hot sauce and onions, and others alleged that they were forced to do work for the fraternity members (such as laundry and other chores). The hearing board in general found that the fraternity had a “toxic culture of drug and alcohol use.”

An autopsy report completed in February found that Wiant died of asphyxiation due to nitrous-oxide ingestion, with him testing positive for that substance.

The family’s lawsuit alleges that Wiant was the victim of hazing by the fraternity, and was provided with, or forced to take, “illegal drugs containing nitrous oxide” by fraternity members, with small canisters of nitrous oxide found near his body (commonly referred to as “whippets”). The national and local chapters of the fraternity have denied any culpability in Wiant’s death, and argued that Wiant was no longer a pledge of the fraternity at the time of his death because, the fraternity alleges, it had learned that police were investigating him for allegedly sexually assaulting another student, and suspended him from the pledge process.

Wiant was never indicted on any such charges, but The NEWS previously confirmed the existence of a police investigation into that allegation.

Sean Alto, an associate with Columbus law firm Cooper & Elliott that’s representing the Wiant family, said in a response in March that it’s a “flat-out lie” that Wiant was ever suspended from the fraternity.

“We have witnesses and documents that support that (Wiant was still a pledge),” Alto said. “There are people who interacted with Collin after the supposed suspension; at the time they saw him he was in the process of doing tasks and doing the things that we describe in the complaint… getting things for active members, getting things for people in the house.”

Records provided in the university announcement show that the fraternity chapter had appealed the results of the Student Code of Conduct hearing to a university appeal hearing board, as well as to Jason Pina, the vice president for Student Affairs. 

“After reviewing your appeal and the record on the matter, I have found the sanctions imposed by the hearing body to be appropriate,” Pina wrote in his denial of the appeal.

The hearing materials also mentions multiple student witnesses mentioning “whippets” being purchased by a witness and consumed by at least three other witnesses.

In another incident mentioned in those materials, multiple witnesses said that a handle of Tito’s Vodka was consumed by the pledges in an hour’s time during one party, as well as an incident involving eggs being thrown (although it’s not clear at whom – the Wiant lawsuit alleges that Collin Wiant was pelted by eggs at one point). One of the witnesses responded to that allegation in the hearing materials, saying that it was just “drunk boys being boys.”

The fraternity’s Epsilon chapter offered a response early Wednesday afternoon. In it, the fraternity again argued that Wiant was no longer a pledge at the time of his death, in addition to arguing that Wiant did not suffer any mental or physical harm due to pledging activities.

"Instead of the University conflating the issue of drug abuse, which led to Collin Wiant’s death, with hazing and then pretending that expelling Epsilon Chapter helps cure either problem, Epsilon Chapter proposed in its appeal that it use the University’s conduct proceedings and modified sanctions to join the national dialogue on hazing prevention and education, particularly focused on the Ohio University campus," the response read. "The University’s denial of Epsilon Chapter’s appeals, while playing to public opinion, does little to educate and protect the OU community."

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