A University of Chicago student named in a hazing lawsuit against Phi Delta Theta (Phi Delt) says that pledges were given alcohol to the point of vomiting and then held in a basement room as part of an initiation ceremony in 2015—but that the plaintiff in the lawsuit suffered injuries from a fall and not because he was assaulted by fraternity members.
The events of that night led to a University disciplinary investigation, a three year suspension of the University’s Phi Delt chapter, and an ongoing $250,000 lawsuit against the fraternity and some of its members.
Documents and interviews recently given to The Maroon allow new insights into what happened that night. Some elements of the case are still disputed. Dylan Kanaan, the injured student, alleges in his lawsuit that he was singled out and beaten by fraternity members. Members of the fraternity, in interviews with The Maroon and statements to University investigators, say Kanaan slipped and fell on a patch of ice.
Accounts generally agree, however, that an enormous quantity of alcohol was consumed that night. And though members of the fraternity disagree with Kanaan’s version of events, in e-mails they exchanged the night of the event some brothers expressed regret for their approach to the induction ceremony; one called them “blatantly irresponsible.”
On September 21, fourth-year Phi Delt brother Dakota Ford, who did not respond to The Maroon’s request for comment at the time the suit was filed, said in an e-mail to The Maroon that he initially did not want to talk publicly about the case because he had been advised not to, but was “now very eager for the UChicago community and general public to know Phi Delt's side of the story.” Ford provided statements made by pledges to University investigators and emails sent to the fraternity listhost the night of the induction ceremony.
Ford said that brothers gave pledges, including Kanaan, large quantities of alcohol. Ford said that the pledges were brought down to a basement room in the house as guests arrived upstairs for a surprise party to celebrate the induction of the new pledges to the fraternity earlier that evening.
Brothers had to restrain Kanaan when he desperately tried to leave the house, according to Ford and some of the pledge statements.
Ford and some of the pledges rejected Kanaan’s allegations in the suit that he was singled out and assaulted. Ford said that Kanaan sustained his injuries—a concussion, a fractured cheekbone, and a large cut under his eye—from a face-first fall on ice outside the chapter house.
“This kid definitely has a case,” Ford said. “He deserves something, it’s obvious. He has a personal injury case.”
Kanaan’s attorney Jonathon Fazzola said that evidence proving Kanaan’s allegations will be presented at trial. “Fraternity men facing liability for hazing and other conduct regularly change their stories to fit a narrative that they hope will cover up or minimize their misconduct,” he added.
The University opened a large-scale disciplinary investigation into the actions of eight fraternity brothers on the evening of March 7, 2015.
Five brothers, all of whom Ford said had leadership roles in the chapter, were sanctioned with two quarter suspensions. The University’s 2014–2015 report on disciplinary actions states that three of the students were found not responsible for hazing.
In January 2016, the national branch of Phi Delt announced that the chapter would be suspended for three years due to risk management policy violations. According to Ford, the national organization’s investigation into the induction night incident prompted the suspension.
Kanaan filed his lawsuit on July 16, 2016 alleging that he was physically assaulted by brothers. The suit is seeking more than $250,000 from thirteen fraternity members, the chapter, and the national fraternity.
Ford agreed to a recorded interview and provided four redacted statements by pledges to the University during its disciplinary investigation; photos of brothers and pledges taking shots after the induction ceremony; and listhost emails sent between brothers before, during, and after that night. The documents corroborate parts of his account of the night.
At around 7 p.m., 12 students who had rushed the fraternity during winter quarter arrived at the chapter house, not knowing much other than that they were supposed to be wearing formal attire.
Five days earlier, a brother sent an email to the fraternity listhost informing the chapter of some changes to induction night. “Pinning” is a Phi Delt ritual in which new members receive their “pledge pins.” Although Phi Delt is officially a nationally dry fraternity, pinning has long been followed by a night of drinking at the chapter.
“Pinning is Saturday and this time we’re going to try and incorporate a surprise factor with the party afterwards,” the brother wrote. “This means we’ll do the normal rituals / phi nukes / boat races then for a 30 min time period we’ll lock them up in the basement or attic while we have girls and the newly pinned pledges friends storm in the house preparing for the big surprise party we’ll be throwing them afterwards.”
The “normal ritual,” which features chanting and ceremonial candles, dates back to the founding of the fraternity in 1848 at Miami University.
“Phi nukes” are shots of Everclear mixed with a green non-alcoholic chaser. Ford said that he’s seen old photo albums of pledges taking the green shots on pinning night as early as the 1960s. A boat race is a drinking race in which two teams go down a line chugging full beers as fast as possible.
Brothers were told to keep quiet about pinning night and the after party.
“DO NOT TELL THE BIDDED KIDS ANYTHING ABOUT SATURDAY,” the brother wrote in his email. “Do not mention pinning and especially don’t mention anything about the party afterwards.”
On that Saturday, pledges lined up in front of the house around 7 p.m. Two brothers led them from the house to the fifth floor of Regenstein Library, where they ranked their top three choices for their “pledge father” and exchanged phone numbers.
“The pledges were left in the room while the brothers left the room to determine our pledge fathers. One of the pledges, [redacted] made it a huge point that there would be no drinking that night. He said it 6 or 7 times. with [sic] a huge grin on his face.”
In his suit, Kanaan alleges that he was relieved to be told by a brother before pinning night that there would be no alcohol because he was concerned about his final exams. Finals week began on March 16, nine days after pinning night.
“We left the Reg and went to the house where we were told to form a single line and walk in with our eyes closed and our hands on the person in front of us. They brought us into Chapter Hall, where there were 13 chairs, one for each of the pledges, lined up down the middle of the room,” the pledge statement read.
The pledges took turns standing on the chairs to receive their pledge names. They were given their pledge fathers and their pledge pins. All pledges were then read the Phikeia oath, part of the induction ritual, and told to recite it.
“We were told to close our eyes after that, and when we were told to open them, brothers rushed at us and frantically told us to stand up and sit down,” the pledge statement read. “I was grabbed by the shoulders to stand up and pushed to sit down.”
The pledges were taken to the dining room where Phi nukes were lined up on the table to form “ΦΔΘ.” Pledges drank from the Theta; brothers started to chip away at the more dilute drinks in the Phi, according to Ford.
After they finished the Phi nukes, pledges lined up against brothers for boat races in Chapter Hall. According to a pledge statement, some brothers poured shots into the pledges’ beers.
After the second boat race, some pledges and a few brothers vomited, but that didn’t stop brothers from running another boat race with the pledges who didn’t already have their heads in a trashcan, according to a pledge statement.
Kanaan alleges that he was forced to drink eight shots and six beers, including a full cup of the clear-green alcoholic liquid, in less than half an hour. Ford initially said that Kanaan’s estimate seemed plausible, but later in the interview said that the pledges only drank three or four Phi nukes each. One pledge said in his statement that he thought they did “3 cycles” of Phi nukes before the boat races. In e-mails, brothers used the words “copious” and “absurd” to describe the quantity of alcohol that they told the pledges to drink.
After the drinking games, the pledges were taken down to Ford’s double-sized room in the basement of the house. Ford insisted that his room was chosen “solely based on its size.”
Asked if pledges were told why they were being held in a basement room, Ford said, “We kinda kept them in the dark on that. It was supposed to be a surprise party, which probably wasn’t the best idea, in retrospect, regarding risk management stuff.”
While the party was being prepared upstairs, the pledges sat on the floor in a circle in the basement room and took turns vomiting into a bucket, according to a pledge statement. Ford, Phi Delt President Nicholas Luthi, and a few other brothers were in or near the basement room, Ford said.
At this point in the night, Kanaan’s account in the suit starts to diverge from some of the pledge statements and the story that Ford told The Maroon.
"[Kanaan] was singled out by [the defendants] and was taken to Defendant Ford’s room in the basement of the Chapter House,” the suit alleges. “Isolated there, [they] continued to haze [Kanaan], whereby they and/or others physically assaulted him.”
Ford said, “No assault on any pledge took place that night and no one was singled out.”
A member of Kanaan's pledge class who was only willing to speak to The Maroon on the condition of anonymity said that he did not see Kanaan being singled out.
“At no point were any of us pledges subjected to physical violence as part of our initiation ceremony, and at no point was I aware of Dylan Kanaan being ‘singled out’ by the fraternity,” he wrote in an e-mail.
According to Ford and a few of the pledge statements, Kanaan knocked over a bookshelf in the basement room with all the pledges and asked to be let out of the room.
“He began crying, saying that he had to go home—really rough scene,” Ford said. “He says, ‘I have to go home. I have to get the fuck out of here. Let me out, let me out.’ And he starts running into things, knocks over my bookshelf, he’s running into people.”
A pledge described the situation similarly in his statement.
“One of my fellow pledges, [Kanaan] began to act slightly paranoid, knocking down a bookshelf and asking the brothers to let him out of the basement,” it read. “The brothers reassured him that they would let him out soon, but could not tell him about the party because it was to be a surprise. [Kanaan] just pushed a couple brothers out of his way and ran out of the basement.”
Another pledge wrote, “I had some memory of two brothers trying to restrain [Kanaan] who had gotten fairly violent in his drunken stupor and was ramming himself against a wall or a bookshelf.”
A third pledge said that he was coming down from an upstairs room in the house when he walked past Kanaan in the doorway of Ford’s room. As he entered, he said he saw Kanaan crying as he exited the room, but Kanaan’s face appeared unhurt at the time. The fourth pledge remembered Kanaan knocking over a bookcase and exiting the room at around 10 p.m.
According to Ford, Kanaan “desperately” tried to leave the basement room and brothers were unable to restrain him because of his size.
“Dylan was recruited to the University of Chicago for football. He’s a very big kid. A very muscular guy. Stronger than most brothers or pledges in the house. And there’s not really much we can do to control this guy,” Ford said. “He leaves my room, runs along the hallway of the basement, runs up the side stairs of the house, opens the side entrance of the house, and gets outside. We did touch him. We did hold his arms and try to calm him down. Told him that everything was going to be fine, told him ‘we have a big party planned for you guys.’”
“Kanaan continued to yell out, ‘I need to go home, I need to get the fuck out of here,’” Ford said. “He was sobbing hysterically the whole time.”
Kanaan alleges in his suit that he was isolated in Ford’s room in the basement and physically assaulted. Ford said that he slipped on ice and fell on his face.
“The injuries sustained by Dylan Kanaan were a result of one fall in a walkway alongside the house,” Ford said. “He basically just broke free while two guys were trying to hold him, and took off on a full sprint along this walkway along the side our house. He slipped and fell face first. He didn’t use his arms [to brace his fall]—I saw this happen, I was one of the like four or five brothers who followed him outside.”
The pledges got an e-mail from a member of the fraternity the next day saying that Kanaan slipped on ice and hit his face on some stairs, according to one of the statements.
Ford said that when he approached Kanaan after the alleged fall, he saw that “there was blood pouring down his face.” The brothers who were outside decided against taking Kanaan to the hospital and instead brought him to his resident heads, Marc and Kara LiVecche, at Graham House in Max Palevsky.
Marc LiVecche declined to speak to The Maroon about a student’s case. Then asked what the two brothers told him about how Kanaan sustained his injuries, LiVecche did not respond.
At 10:57 p.m., Ford started an email thread on the fraternity’s listhost.
“I don’t think it’s arguable that [Kanaan] should be a dry pledge,” Ford said.
“When we told him to sit with everyone else [in my] room, he escaped and started running away. When he ran outside, [redacted] and I tried to restrain him. He broke free and ran, then slipped and fell, cutting open his face. He also banged his head against walls and knocked shit over the entire night. I think for attic night, as his pledge brothers work through two kegs and two handles, [Kanaan’s] challenge should be to kill six liters of Sprite.”
“Dry pledges drink milk,” a brother joked.
Another brother said that spilled milk would smell bad, and backed up Ford that soda would be a better option for a dry pledge. He added that Kanaan was already considering dropping before sustaining his injuries because of his “degrading pledge name.”
“On the subject of altering tradition, I don’t think phi nukes are a good idea for pinning night. Making 18 year olds take many shots of Everclear is a terrible idea. I think boat races and shots are fun, but what’s the point of pinning night if none of the pledges remember it? Hell, we can still make green shots and call them phi nukes, but they shouldn’t be as strong/or we could not make pledges drink absurd amounts of them,” a brother wrote.
“Dry pledge with redbull,” a brother joked.
At 12:10 a.m., the listhost conversation got serious: “Can’t wait to explain to [Kanaan] when he wakes up tomorrow why the fuck he was phi nuked with Everclear shots after already stating, ‘this is the drunkest I’ve ever been,’” the brother wrote. “I probably could be misinterpreting the story though because he threw up before, during, and after telling it. There are some pretty stupid things we do but this is blatantly irresponsible. Also, [redacted] looked like he was on bath salts tonight. Reality check, some of these kids did not drink in high school. They want to impress us and drink their fair share. This is BAD. So far we’ve gotten really fucking lucky but all we need is one kid to fall out the window on the third floor or hit his head on the side walk [sic] and we are boned. Goddamn, lets [sic] use our fucking brains.”
At 1:43 p.m. the next day, a brother wrote, “The unfortunate events that took place last night were completely our fault. [Kanaan] went to the hospital to take an X-ray and CAT scan, and found that he not only has large cuts on his face but also a concussion and fractured cheekbone. He’s said he’s going to drop. We gave him copious shots of Everclear, we failed to restrain him as he tried to run out into the night, we failed to salt the icy ground outside to prevent people from slipping. The blame collectively falls on us as a house. We completely failed this kid. Pinning night is seriously flawed; we give these kids way to [sic] much alcohol and don’t have enough people managing risk. It’s a stupid fucking old house tradition and needs to be changed.
“I suggest we all collectively pay for his hospital bills regardless of whether he drops or not (he most likely will). It’s the very least we can do.”
An hour later, a brother responded, “This discussion ends now. Absolutely no discussion of this on the list host. Any brother who posts will be J-Boarded [judicial board] and severely punished.”
Ford said that brothers took Kanaan to the hospital in an Uber the next day. One pledge said in his statement that Kanaan messaged him a picture at 4 a.m. the next morning of his bloodied face. The pledge said that he went to Kanaan’s dorm and took him to the hospital, where he waited with Kanaan until he was seen by a doctor at 6 a.m. Kanaan’s suit states that he was treated for seven hours.
Within two days, Kanaan had cut off all contact with the fraternity, Ford said.
Ford denied that Kanaan was assaulted in retaliation.
“There was no drug dealer revenge story to this,” he said. “That’s Yik Yak rumors. None of that is true. I think like a lot of this was kind of like the UVA thing, like the Rolling Stone article. Just to throw an allegation out there.”
“A house full of brothers wouldn’t viciously assault someone who they had spent 10 weeks getting to know and befriending,” he said.
Ford said that the incident revealed issues in the chapter’s handling of the ritual.
“We clearly had some stupid traditions,” Ford said. “We clearly gave a bunch of eighteen and nineteen year old kids a bunch of alcohol in their first year of college that a lot of people aren’t ready for. Phi Delt was definitely at fault. Rightfully so, we had our charter taken away because Phi Delt is a nationally dry fraternity.”
Phi Delta Theta has been dry since 2000. According to Ford, the national organization determined in investigating the incident that the chapter was hosting events with alcohol and drinking games in the house, which was enough for the charter to be suspended.
Asked whether a chapter could be suspended for alcohol violations alone, Chief Operating Officer of Phi Delta Theta Sean Wagner said, “Any violation of Phi Delta Theta risk management policies or actions that contradict Phi Delta Theta values, either by an individual or the chapter, can result in temporary or permanent disciplinary action.”
Ford said he’s visited five Phi Delt chapters and brothers at all of the chapters consume alcohol, while avoiding mention of it on social media.
The five students who were suspended by the University all requested a review of the decisions, but all five decisions were maintained by the disciplinary committee. Ford said that he was one of three students summoned to a disciplinary hearing who did not receive a formal punishment.
Ford showed The Maroon a letter from the University after his hearing that said the University found his actions irresponsible, but was only giving him a warning.
The University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) filed an incident report. “Individual became involved in an altercation while attending a party / Received minor injuries / Treated and released at ER,” it reads. The report says the incident occurred at 9:30 p.m. at the Phi Delt house. Because the UCPD is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and because the Chicago Police Department was not involved, no reports or police records are publicly available, said UCPD Safety and Security Public Information Officer Robert Mason.
With the exception of the one student who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the pledges in Kanaan’s class did not respond to requests for comment.
Luthi and pledge educator Mihir Dubey did not respond to requests for comment. Five brothers who were identified in the photos provided by Ford to The Maroon as being at the pinning ritual did not respond to requests for comment.
“The allegations in the complaint will be proven in trial. In our experience, fraternity men facing liability for hazing and other conduct regularly change their stories to fit a narrative that they hope will cover up or minimize their misconduct,” reads the full statement from Kanaan’s attorney. “The University investigated the incident and disciplined the fraternity and certain fraternity members. Photographic and other evidence will prove Dylan’s claims. We have no intent to try this case in the media, and we instead intend to hold these individuals accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”
Editor’s Note: Ford redacted the names in the documents he provided to The Maroon. The Maroon added Kanaan’s name in brackets where it was clear from context or Ford’s own account of the night that Kanaan’s name was beneath the redaction. The Maroon left names redacted where it was unclear.
The Maroon redacted one line from the listhost emails upon consultation with a legal expert.
Correction on Oct. 5, 2016, 9:13 a.m. CDT:
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the social chair at the time of the incident. The Maroon regrets this error.