When Derek Elrod was rushing a fraternity at the University of North Texas (UNT) in the fall of 2013, he was having, as he puts it, “the time of my life.” The brothers at the fraternity of his first choice, Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp), were surprisingly warm and welcoming.
Elrod — a transfer and commuter student — hadn’t spent much time on campus, but after hanging around with the SigEp guys, he finally felt like he found the big social opportunity he had been craving. “I was on top of the world,” he recalled. “It was extremely inviting and friendly. I met so many people I thought were really nice people. The feeling was just like, ‘how did I not know that this existed?’ It felt like this was UNT’s greatest secret.”
So when Elrod finally got an offer to join SigEp on bid day, September 7, 2013, he was thrilled. It was a raucous event. Members of Greek life and other UNT students rallied inside the football stadium, donning bright facepaint, chanting, and waving fraternity flags in the air. Elrod was gifted a turquoise SigEp T-shirt and crouched in a group photo with the other pledges, smiling and holding up a peace sign.
After the ceremony, the new SigEp pledges made their way to the fraternity house to celebrate. That’s when, for Elrod, the joyous atmosphere took a sharp turn. According to police reports obtained by ThinkProgress, Elrod called 911 around 3 p.m. to report hazing, telling UNT police that SigEp’s then-President, Richard Randall, forced pledges to drink straight vodka and, according to the report, “complete countless push-ups” in a room inside the fraternity house. In a written statement to UNT police, Elrod also identified student Kenneth Grunden as having been involved in the process. Grunden did not respond to request for comment from ThinkProgress.
At that point, Elrod, who had been diagnosed in 2005 with a permanent medical condition involving abnormal nervous system functions, began to panic.
“I don’t even know how to explain the amount of mental anguish I was in,” he told ThinkProgress. “I felt like I was trapped…The lights were off, the blinds were closed…the door was closed, and there were guys in front of it…I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even lift my own body up. It was the first moment in my life that I could not lift my own body up from the ground…I felt like I was not free to leave.”
Elrod eventually did get himself up, raced down the stairs, and dialed 911. According to video footage obtained by ThinkProgress, Randall denied Elrod’s allegations when the police officer arrived at the fraternity house, telling him: “We just kinda didn’t want him here because we thought he was on the homosexual side.” “For our pledges, we just get like, ‘hey, you know man, he’s kind of on the weird side of heterosexual,’” Randall remarked. “I honestly thought he was homosexual. Hey guys, we shouldn’t invite him over to our house. It’s kind of weird that he is here.”
When the officer pressed: “You don’t like him because you think he is a homosexual?” Randall responded: “Honestly, yes…I mean, you get where I’m coming from?”
Elrod, who said he was at that point “severely dehydrated,” went with the police officers to give a statement about what happened. At around 4 p.m., a SigEp fraternity member texted Elrod: “You can NOT come back. You need to put your SigEp shirt back in the mailbox.” A few days later, Randall sent Elrod a text message, admonishing him for calling the police and telling him to “cease and desist all communication…We don’t associate ourselves with people who have misinterpretations of what hazing is.”
Elrod returned his turquoise SigEp shirt.
Not long after the incident, the Dean of Students conducted an investigation under the code of student conduct and determined that SigEp was responsible for hazing. According to a communications representative from the university, the fraternity was sentenced with a two-year probation in October 2013, which, among other things, banned social events and stipulated that fraternity members were required to complete an educational program on risk management. The UNT representative told ThinkProgress that the Dean of Students watched the video but could not speak for SigEp National.
SigEp National’s marketing and communications director said the organization was only made aware of the video in March 2015. However, public records obtained by ThinkProgress show that SigEp National requested the police report — which clearly outlined Randall’s comments — a year and a half earlier.
On September 11, 2013, Seth D. Irby, SigEp National’s director of fraternity operations, sent a public records request to the UNT Police Department for the police report. The police report explicitly detailed Randall’s comments about his perception of Elrod’s sexuality: “Randall stated they were having some issues with Elrod and unsure if they should bid him into SigEp due to questions of his sexual orientation and other things. Randall admitted that they were doing some ’light PT’ [physical training] while giving the new pledges ‘inspirational speeches.’”
Still, they maintain that they were not “made aware” of the video until March 2015.
SigEp National’s marketing director confirmed that “fraternity staff obtained a redacted police report.” While SigEp National told ThinkProgress that “discrimination of any kind is not tolerated,” it does not appear as though Randall was removed from the fraternity. On November 1, 2013, Randall tweeted: “Happy 112th birthday to the fraternity that has given me so much.”
Randall told ThinkProgress that, following the incident, people from SigEp’s National “were unhappy with me,” and that he stepped down from his presidency after “all that transpired…They were like, ‘hey man, that’s not cool,’” he explained. “’We know what you said in the police report, and we don’t agree with that as a national fraternity.’”
SigEp National did not respond to follow-up inquiries about Randall’s standing with the fraternity.
In February 2014, UNT issued Elrod a no-contact order, stipulating that he must “have no contact with any members of Sigma Phi Epsilon, the girlfriends of members of Sigma Phi Epsilon and employees of Sigma Phi Epsilon National Headquarters until further notice.”
A few months later, Elrod said he uploaded photos of his “hazing injuries from SigEp” on his Facebook page, writing: “SigEp, a fraternity that claims to have a zero tolerance for hazing but then allows a pledge to get kicked out for reporting it.”
In an email to ThinkProgress, the communications director for SigEp National called Elrod’s comments “inflammatory.”
Shortly after the Facebook post, Kathy Johnston, SigEp National’s risk management director, called Elrod and threatened “legal action” against him for posting commentary about his experience on social media. “I don’t know every side to the story, but the national fraternity does have a zero tolerance for hazing,” she told Elrod in a phone call that was recorded and provided to ThinkProgress. “And we do not appreciate you posting things about the national fraternity, so if you do not stop doing that, we are gonna have to have our attorney, our general counsel, take some legal action. Because you are damaging the reputation of the fraternity.”
In the conversation, Elrod insisted that he was kicked out of SigEp because he was “hazed and reported it and spoke out about it.”
“We take these allegations very seriously. We certainly do not ignore them or allow people to kick them out because they report things,” Johnston replied.
Randall told ThinkProgress that Elrod was “kept from the fraternity for calling the police on a brotherhood event.” Moreover, a representative from SigEp admitted that “the UNT investigation determined that the chapter had violated the Fraternity’s policies on hazing.” Despite that, Johnston called and threatened Elrod with legal action for talking about the hazing.
Elrod said the phone call from Johnston “amplified everything” he was dealing with psychologically. “I think it was an evil thing for her to do that. And it wasn’t just intimidation. It was painful. It was taking somebody who is diagnosed with a medical condition and abusing them.”
SigEp National did not respond to inquiries from ThinkProgress about whether the organization allowed the decision removing Elrod from the fraternity to stand, took action against any specific UNT members for the hazing incident, or released any public statements about Randall’s comments in the video and police report.
ThinkProgress contacted Johnston for comment but did not hear back.
However, SigEp’s marketing and communications director told ThinkProgress that “members are admitted to Sigma Phi Epsilon without regard to race, color, religion, age, physical disability, ethnic background, sexual orientation, creed or national origin. The Fraternity proactively works to create more inclusive, diverse and accepting environments. Discrimination of any kind is not tolerated.”
He added: “The student is no longer a member of the North Texas chapter; however, similar comments would justify expulsion of any current member.”
ThinkProgress noted that the student is no longer a member of the UNT chapter because he graduated. SigEp’s marketing and communications director did not respond to inquiries about the student’s current membership with SigEp National.
Randall said that when the incident took place, nearly two years ago, he was “pretty dumb. Being a college fraternity guy, I was an idiot, you know? I wasn’t happy about the things I said that day and what all went on. Looking back on that I’m pretty embarrassed. When I graduated, it was kind of an eye opener — to really actually see some of the discrimination and the unfairness that the LGBTQ community goes through.”
He elaborated: “I’ve never been the type to discriminate. Everybody’s a person. I love everybody. Looking back on it, I said some pretty stupid things that a dumb fraternity guy would say.”
“If he’s a changed person, it’s been two years, he’s never called to apologize or contacted me,” Elrod remarked. “I have not received a call.”
As for Randall’s comments, Elrod maintains that “the national office should have issued a statement rejecting what he said very firmly. And I think he should have been publicly removed from [being] President.”
Elrod insisted that his goal isn’t “to get somebody kicked out.” But the psychological blowback from the incident has profoundly impacted him; he told ThinkProgress he has been diagnosed with PTSD as a result of the hazing, which he believes was intensified by his medical condition. When asked what he would have liked to see happen, he paused.
“I think I wanted them to care,” he concluded. “I just was completely treated like, the worst that I’ve ever been treated by anybody…I have given [the fraternity] every possible opportunity to make this right. And to do something to make up for this and take some sort of responsibility for all those wrong things that happened.”