A Civic Project story
By Rachel Brieve, Madison Longenecker and Laura Scott
INDIANA – On Saturday night, April 29, Deandre L. Easterling, a defensive lineman for Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s football team, attended a party at Phi Kappa Psi, a social fraternity at 220 S. Seventh St.
It was the last weekend before the final week of spring-semester classes. Music was blaring. Guests were drinking. Another party night on frat row.
Shortly after midnight, the scene turned violent.
In the early hours of Sunday, April 30, a fight broke out between fraternity members and football players. Police came. They issued citations. They left. A melee erupted. Police returned. Then left. Then returned a third time.
THE STORY OF THAT early Sunday morning, as told by witnesses, university officials, borough police officials, police documents and court records, provides a local look at a widening national narrative of the troubled relationship between Greek social fraternities and college campuses around the country.
The troubles include hazing, drinking, illegal drugs, sexual misconduct and racist and anti-Semitic slurs. In November alone, at least seven major U.S. universities suspended all Greek activities, according to Newsweek magazine.
One of the universities was Penn State, where Timothy John Piazza died on Feb. 4, 2017, after a hazing incident at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. More than two dozen fraternity members face charges, including involuntary manslaughter.
At IUP, police charged a Phi Delta Theta member with aggravated assault and criminal homicide in what the county coroner ruled was a strangulation death of a fellow fraternity member on Feb. 3. According to online state court records, the charges against Brady C. DiStefano were dropped at a preliminary hearing in November.
THE APRIL 30 IUP Phi Kappa Psi fight was neither fatal nor racial – no white frat members excluding black athletes – according to Easterling.
“A lot of people think that the football team fought Phi Psi because we couldn’t get in,” Easterling said during a Nov. 1 interview in an off-campus apartment. “But a lot of us were in there. I was in there.”
One of his teammates, IUP defensive back Boniface K. “J.R.” Stevens, tried to join his friends inside the fraternity house, Easterling recounted. But fraternity members pushed Stevens back.
“We were just chillin’,” Easterling said. “And next thing you know, one of my roommates comes in and says, ‘J.R. just got jumped.’ And I’m just like, ‘F***, what are we gonna do?’”
The altercation escalated when Phi Kappa Psi members referred to Stevens using the “N” word, Easterling said. A fist fight ensued.
Stevens was beaten by four Phi Kappa Psi members — Jalen B. Coriano-Nix, Zachary M. Cortese, Nicholas M. Driggs and Grant R. Palmer, according to Indiana borough police records.
At 12:25 a.m., Sunday, April 30, police arrived at the frat house in response to the first of three calls. All four frat members were charged with simple assault, harassment and disorderly conduct, according to a May 18 incident report obtained from borough police.
Stevens could not be reached for comment.
As police worked the scene, Easterling saw the extent of Stevens’ injuries. He was shocked.
“I went over and saw J.R. and my other friend sitting on the cop car,” Easterling said. “When I saw his face, it was, like, deformed. He broke bones in his face, broke his cheekbone, broke his jaw bone. He literally didn’t even look like himself.”
The sight angered Easterling and his teammates.
“Immediately, I’m furious,” he said. “That was the striking point for everyone. Everyone was, like, ‘F***, no!’”
Police tried to mediate and defuse the tension, Easterling said.
“The police were telling guys on the team, ‘I understand if you want to fight them, we don’t blame you guys for that,’” Easterling recounted. “It was a woman cop who was basically saying that.”
Borough police records show that Officer Jenny L. Lenhart cited the four fraternity members. Office Lenhart was not available when sought for comment.
Police left the fraternity house.
At 12:54 a.m., they returned, in response to a report of a fight, said borough police Lt. Justin Schawl in a Dec. 11 interview at the department office.
It was more like a brawl.
“Indiana police responded and estimated approximately 100 people in the area, but no victims, witnesses or suspects were located,” Schawl said.
Police made no arrests, Schawl said.
“The crowd was dispersed,” Schawl said. “The police cleared the area.”
The police account is incomplete, according to Easterling and other eyewitnesses. It does not report that Phi Kappa Psi member Augustus L. “Augie” Secrest pulled a gun during the fight, Easterling said, and pointed it at the face of Easterling’s roommate without saying a word.
“He was just threatening to shoot him,” Easterling said.
Secrest admitted pulling a gun. But he viewed the night differently than Easterling and his teammates did.
“Yes, I drew my Glock 43 in self-defense,” wrote Secrest in a Nov. 3 text message. “I have my license to carry a concealed firearm, and I was within my rights to brandish because my brothers and myself were in danger of severe injury.”
Police returned for a third time that night at 2:18 a.m., when they were called to the 200 block of Rice Avenue, an alley behind the Phi Kappa Psi house, for reported terroristic threats made toward residents of a fraternity, according to a news release obtained Nov. 29 from Lt. Schawl.
Police made no arrests and issued no citations, according to police and to court records.
Of the four men charged in the April 30 fighting, online Indiana County court records report that Coriano-Nix and Driggs pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. Cortese had his charges withdrawn or treated as summary offenses. No court record was found for Palmer.
SINCE THAT NIGHT, IUP football players have been banned from fraternity parties.
“We aren’t allowed to go to frats,” Easterling said, “or else we get kicked off the team.”
Football coach Paul Tortorella and athletic director Steve Roach did not respond to Dec. 4 emails requesting comment.
Relations between Phi Kappa Psi and the university administration have been strained, as well. Some fraternity members said they have been mistreated by administrators, including Elizabeth E. “Betsy” Sarneso, assistant director of Greek life and student engagement.
Sarneso did not respond to emails seeking comment.
Gun-packing Phi Kappa Psi member Secrest – who said he has a license for concealed-carry of his Glock — said the school was covering up the April 30 incident.
“Basically, if IUP football has a bad name, IUP gets the rep, too, so they tried hiding things,” Secrest wrote in a Nov. 3 text message. “They did not do anything to protect us, neither did the police.”
To protest what fraternity members viewed as an uncaring administration, Phi Kappa Psi removed its middle name.
“We took the ‘kappa’ down because of the constant injustice and prejudice we were facing with the school,” Phi Kappa Psi member Joseph C. Murray texted in October.
In a Dec. 4 email, Phi Kappa Psi national marketing and communications manager Garret Walton declined to be interviewed about the IUP chapter and the April 30 incidents.
In a Dec. 5 email, IUP spokeswoman Michelle S. Fryling responded to a question seeking the official status of the Phi Kappa Psi social fraternity.
“Phi Kappa Psi is on social suspension,” she responded in a Dec. 5 email.
IUP Phi Kappa Psi president Damir A. Romano wrote in a Nov. 27 email that the chapter is “still associated with the university.”
“We look forward to recruitment in the spring,” Romano wrote. “We have been working with Betsy and the University moving forward.”
HOWEVER, SPRING MAY BRING a new climate in campus relations with Greek social organizations. University administrators announced Dec. 14 that a new task force on IUP Greek life will deliver a strategic plan to IUP President Michael A. Driscoll in time for spring fraternity-recruiting season.
“It is now time to put a plan in place to advance us to the future,” said Sarneso.
Meanwhile, football player Easterling reflected on the violent night at the Phi Kappa Psi house.
“I don’t hate frat guys,”Easterling said. “It was just a bad situation that they caused. A few bad eggs will ruin the bunch.”
Rachel E. Brieve, a junior journalism major and political science minor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Pittsburgh. She may be contacted at R.E.Brieve@iup.edu.
Madison J. Longenecker, a senior journalism major and English minor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Roaring Spring. She may be contacted at M.J.Longenecker@iup.edu.
Laura E. Scott, a junior journalism major and English minor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Altoona. She may be contacted at L.E.Scott@iup.edu.
Sidebar: A case of hazing
INDIANA – During Homecoming weekend in October, the Phi Kappa Psi social fraternity at Indiana University of Pennsylvania reportedly engaged in hazing of new members assigned to house-cleaning duty, university and fraternity sources acknowledge.
The allegation is contained in a fragment of a form that appears to recount an incident at the fraternity house during IUP’s annual, fall-football-season alumni celebration. The fragmentary document was provided to a reporter by an anonymous whistle-blower in a Nov. 3 text message.
The document reports that IUP Phi Kappa Psi members punished new members for the failure of some to report for duty on Oct. 5 to clean the fraternity house for a Homecoming-related event. The house-cleaning was rescheduled for Oct. 7, and new-member tardiness again angered older members.
Older members went “over the edge” and “forced” new members to consume “excessive amounts of alcohol” and shots of “concoctions of condiments,” according to the fragmentary report.
Active members then ordered new members to take part in an “activity” in which they “land on their backs and knock the wind out of themselves.” The fragment concludes: “new members were injured during this activity with at least one new member sustaining a concussion.”
Phi Kappa Psi chapter President Damir A. Romano and chapter Vice President Jalen B. Coriano-Nix were named in the fragmentary document.
On Dec. 11, Romano responded to a request for comment.
“False accusations,” he texted.
Romano said the university’s student-conduct board heard the allegations and found the defendants not guilty.
IUP spokeswoman Michelle S. Fryling responded Dec. 13 to a question about the official status of the fraternity in the wake of the reported Oct. 7 hazing incident.
“Phi Kappa Psi is on social suspension,” she wrote in a Dec. 13 email. “This action was taken in response to violation of the conduct policy for recognized student organizations.”
Duration of punishment was not specified.
“The fraternity must complete a number of requirements from the university and the national fraternity headquarters in order to have the social suspension lifted,” Fryling wrote.
— by Rachel Brieve
Sidebar: A brief timeline of social fraternities at IUP
INDIANA — The Indiana Normal School – the forerunner of Indiana University of Pennsylvania — was established in 1875, when fraternities and sororities did not exist on campus. Students engaged in clubs that suited their interests, according to an archived special collection of yearbooks in the IUP library.
A Kodak club for photographers and an eating club for food lovers were among the social organizations on campus, according to the annual yearbooks.
In 1908, the Phi Alpha fraternity formed, followed by Omega Chi in 1909. They were the only social fraternities on campus until the early 1930’s, when more frats were established.
IUP’s Phi Kappa Psi chapter was chartered in 1970.
Over the past two decades, social fraternity chapters have dwindled at IUP. In 1998, 16 fraternities were associated with the school, according to online IUP public archives. In 2017, the number was down to 11 social fraternities, a decrease of 31 percent percent in the past 20 years.
— by Madison Longenecker
Sidebar: For more information or to get involved
For more information about this story or to get engaged in the issues addressed, contact the following sources:
Office of Greek Life and Student Engagement
Elizabeth E. Sarneso
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
307 Pratt Hall,
201 Pratt Drive
Indiana, PA 15705
Michelle S. Fryling
Executive director of communications and media relations
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
314 Sutton Hall
1011 South Drive
Indiana, PA 15705
Phone: (724) 357-2302
Center for Student Life
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Pratt Hall, Room 303
201 Pratt Drive
Indiana, PA 15705
IUP Phi Kappa Psi
Damir A. Romano
220 S. Seventh St.
Indiana, PA 15701
Phi Kappa Psi
Garret Walton, media contact
5395 Emerson Way
Indianapolis, Indiana 46226
Phone: 800-486-1852; 317-632-1852
North-American Interfraternity Conference
Vice President of Campus Operations, Northeast/Mid-Atlantic
865 W Carmel Drive, Suite 116
Carmel, IN 46032
Sidebar: About us
The HawkEye is a civic- and community-journalism project involving students in the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
These undergraduates report and write public-service investigative stories focused on their campus, their community and the county. The stories are rooted in the curriculum of the News Reporting classes taught by IUP journalism professor David O. Loomis Ph.D.
The students’ work has won awards from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, a statewide professional and trade group based in Harrisburg. The association has honored the students’ public-service enterprise reporting, a professional practice emphasized by the online newspaper. The practice, according to the PNA, encourages publication of “any special project that exposed a problem or issue and thus benefited the public ….”
The HawkEye’s PNA awards date to 2005. Eight times student stories published in the online newspaper have been submitted to the association’s annual, statewide, Keystone collegiate-journalism competition. Each time, the IUP students have won honors.
The HawkEye encourages interaction with readers and welcomes accountability for its reporting. Contact editor David Loomis, Ph.D., at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 724-357-2742.