On January 9, 2017, a Northwestern University sophomore named Jordan Hankins died by suicide in her dorm room in Evanston, Illinois. This week, two years after her death, her mother—Felicia Hankins—filed a complaint in federal court against Alpha Kappa Alpha, the sorority her daughter was pledging at the time of her death. The complaint alleges that Jordan Hankins, also a member of the university’s women’s basketball team, was subjected to “physical abuse including paddling, verbal abuse, mental abuse, financial exploitation, sleep deprivation, items being thrown and dumped on her, and other forms of hazing intended to humiliate and demean her” during the hazing process, which triggered her post-traumatic stress disorder and caused the prolonged anxiety and depression that eventually led to her death. (The lawsuit does not specify whether Hankins’s PTSD was a direct result of the hazing or existed before it.) Prior to Felicia Hankins’s complaint, most media coverage of Jordan Hankins’s suicide did not characterize it as having any relation to sorority hazing.
In late 2018, Hank Nuwer, the author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives, estimated in a CNN story that across the country, at least one hazing death had occurred each year since 1970, and by CNN’s count, more than 77 fraternity hazing deaths had occurred since 2005. Death by Greek-system hazing, in other words, is hardly an uncommon tragedy in American higher education, and as Caitlin Flanagan wrote in her 2017 Atlantic story “Death at a Penn State Fraternity”—about the death of Tim Piazza, a sophomore pledge who died in the campus Beta Theta Pi house—a certain sequence of events tends to transpire when a young man dies as a result of fraternity hazing. The fallout from Jordan Hankins’s death has, unfortunately, begun to follow the familiar trajectory for hazing deaths on college campuses. But her case, if it can even be considered a hazing death, would be a somewhat unusual one.
In filing her complaint, Felicia Hankins has initiated what Flanagan describes as the “second half” of the hazing ritual—the half that gets invoked only after one of the pledges being hazed has died. After a “period of reflection” at the Greek house itself, in which the chapter will perhaps appoint a “blue-ribbon panel” to analyze what went wrong and then be shut down or suspended for a few years, then come condolences and condemnation from the university administration, and a media frenzy. Then the grieving parents “will hope to press criminal charges. Usually, they will also sue the fraternity,” Flanagan writes.
In a statement to The Atlantic, the headquarters of AKA emphasized the sorority’s “zero tolerance” policy for hazing: “We consistently educate incoming and current sorority members about behaviors that constitute hazing and the repercussions of such behaviors, including suspension and expulsion.”(Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically black sorority, is governed by the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which also oversees eight other African American fraternities and sororities, and is distinct from the two umbrella organizations that oversee most other national social sororities and fraternities.) In a statement, a university spokesman said the school is “deeply saddened” by Hankins’s death. Meanwhile, the Gamma Chi chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha has been suspended from campus since May 2017. It is reportedly scheduled to be reinstated this coming fall, but both AKA headquarters and the university declined to comment on why exactly the Northwestern chapter of AKA was suspended from campus, or whether it will return later this year.
But what usually follows, Flanagan writes, is this:
The parents will try to turn their grief into meaningful purpose, but they will discover how intractable a system they are up against, and how draining the process of chipping away at it is. They will be worn down by the endless civil case that forces them to relive their son’s passing over and over.
Jordan Hankins’s death and the ensuing lawsuit, of course, involve a mother seeking justice after the death of a daughter, not a son—a characteristic that would make the Hankins case something of a rarity in the long historical catalog of students who have died as a result of hazing. That list is made up overwhelmingly of young men, many of whom died as a result of alcohol poisoning or injuries sustained while extremely intoxicated. The two hazing-related deaths that have been reported since Piazza’s death, for example, were young men—a freshman pledging Phi Delta Theta at Louisiana State and another freshman pledging Pi Kappa Phi at Florida State—who died of alcohol poisoning in 2017. And as of September, police were investigating the death of another male student who was in the process of pledging the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at the University of California at Riverside. His mother alleges that “extreme hazing” was to blame.
There is some precedent, though, for sorority hazing deaths. Notable recent examples include two women pledging Delta Sigma Theta at East Carolina University, who died in a car accident in 2010 when a fellow pledge fell asleep at the wheel after an all-night hazing ritual deprived her of sleep, and a woman who died in a car accident in 2003 when she and several other Plymouth State students who were seeking membership in Sigma Kappa Omega, a sorority that was not officially recognized by the college, were passengers in an SUV that crashed during a hazing event. The families of the deceased filed lawsuits in both cases. The year before, two women pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha, the same national sorority to which Jordan Hankins was seeking membership, drowned in the ocean during a hazing ritual imposed by the chapter at California State University at Los Angeles. The two women’s families’ lawsuits were settled out of court, according to the Los Angeles Times, and as part of the deal, the sorority reportedly vowed to work harder to end hazing.
Hankins’s death also stands apart from most hazing deaths in that it did not happen during a hazing event or as a direct physical result of one. Often a coroner’s report or medical intake form can provide evidence to link the cause of death to Greek-life hazing activities—a lethally high blood-alcohol content level, perhaps, or injuries that align with activities involved in the hazing. Felicia Hankins’s lawsuit instead alleges that her daughter’s suicide was the result of the emotional trauma inflicted on her during hazing, which will likely make it more difficult to prove a link between any hazing that may have occurred and Jordan Hankins’s death.
Still, while Jordan Hankins’s death looks different in a few ways from the “typical” hazing fatality, the figures that have emerged in the aftermath—the anguished parent seeking justice through the courts, the Greek organization keeping mum on its role in the incident—are all deeply and sadly familiar. And as the organization accused of playing a role in her daughter’s death prepares to return to campus and move on from the incident, Felicia Hankins is embarking on what may be a long, and likely unrewarding, search for closure.