The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

Did SMU get it wrong?

In December, 2006, Laura Dickinson’s body was discovered in her Eastern Michigan University dorm room, after which administrators issued a perfunctory statement of grief.

Ten weeks later, officials released the grisly details that they had known from the beginning: that Laura had been raped and murdered in her own room.

Needless to say, students were horrified – not half as horrified as Laura Dickinson’s parents. Officials had not only failed to notify students that a rapist and murderer was on the loose, they had also neglected to notify Laura’s parents that their daughter had been the victim of a brutal crime.

Not surprisingly, no official is eager to explain why the information was withheld.

Many are asking whether officials withheld information to protect the university’s image. The best explanation university President John Fallon has been able to give is, “we got it wrong.”

In December 2006, the dead body of SMU student Jacob “Jake” Stiles was discovered in his bedroom in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house the day following the fraternity’s holiday party. Toxicology reports listed the cause of death as a lethal combination of alcohol, cocaine and fentanyl, a synthetic opiate 100 times stronger than morphine.

Six months later, Jake’s parents are wondering if SMU officials also got it wrong during the investigation of their son’s death. They wonder if the fear of negative publicity led administrators to label their son’s death as an accident in spite of evidence, they believe, that points to foul play.

Within days after Jake’s death, Dr. Jim Caswell — then VP of Student Affairs, as well as an SMU alum, and distinguished alumnus of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity — told The Dallas Morning News that the university considered Jake’s death to be “isolated” and that drug use was not “a chapter-wide problem,” adding that the case had been “resolved to [their] satisfaction.”

The facts, however, don’t support Caswell’s claim. Just three weeks before the 19-year-old Naperville, Ill. sophomore died, another SAE member had barely survived a near-fatal overdose at a different SAE party.

The near-fatal overdose alone should have triggered a thorough investigation of drug use at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house. For whatever reason, it did not – nor did the text messages that SMU police downloaded from Jake’s phone that may implicate other SAE members — including the member who may have supplied the fatal drug(s).

If, as the text messages suggest, a fraternity brother did give Jake the fentanyl — possibly a patch — it would not be the first time one fraternity brother had supplied the same deadly drug to another fraternity brother.

In September 2006, 19-year-old Jamie Echols, a member of Theta Chi at the University of Alabama, died as the result of a fentanyl patch that, according to the Tuscaloosa County district attorney, one of his own fraternity brothers sold to him. The supplier has since been charged with murder.

No one knows for sure where Jake Stiles obtained the drug that killed him. His parents think the text messages on his phone are the key to unraveling a mystery that, in some people’s opinion, SMU officials may not want unraveled.

Unfortunately, Jake’s death was just the first of three.

Six months after his death, two other SMU students died under suspicious circumstances. On May 2, freshman Jordan Crist, who was found unconscious on a couch in Perkins dorm, died of acute alcohol poisoning. An autopsy indicated a head bruise consistent with a fall. Yet friends acknowledge placing Jordan on the couch. So where did the bruise come from?

Two weeks following Jordan ‘s death, senior Meaghan Bosch’s body was found wrapped in a blanket on the floor of a portable toilet. Like Jake, Meaghan died of an overdose. Because she died off-campus, however, her death is being investigated by the Texas Rangers, who have arrested a suspect believed to be her drug dealer.

In the wake of these deaths, SMU struggles to defend itself against charges that the university was negligent in its responsibility to address – or at least acknowledge – what many consider a widespread alcohol and drug problem on campus.

In a June 4th press conference, Meaghan’s father told reporters, “Drugs are woven into the Greek system and the social fabric of the university. The administration is either unwilling or has been incapable of addressing this issue.” Many people agree.

In response to mounting publicity, SMU President Dr. R. Gerald Turner reaffirmed the university’s sense of loss and announced the formation of a task force.

As it stands, the task force may raise more questions than it answers.

Are the dean of Student Life, chief of police, director of Residential Life, a member of the SAE fraternity and the mother of a former SAE officer sufficiently unbiased to render impartial findings?

Can other SMU parents expect an outcome different than that of the parents of the three SMU students who died if the task force is not given wide latitude to investigate institutional failures at SMU?

Will the task force consider whether SMU acted out of self-interest to shield itself or others from negative publicity or legal action?

Is the SMU police force sufficiently free from university influence to investigate campus deaths?

Will the task force be able — or willing — to ask tough questions and make substantive recommendations that Dr. Turner is committed to implementing?

If Dr. Turner is truly committed to an unbiased investigation, he must replace those members who have obvious conflicts of interest with individuals who have no ties to the university or Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity — and appoint a member who will represent the interests of the students who died and their parents.

In the interim, he should ask the Texas Rangers to open investigations into the deaths of Jacob Stiles and Jordan Crist.

About the writer:

George Henson is a Spanish professor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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