TJ and Kim Burch remember their son as a happy and active child.
Involved in many different sports, Nolan Burch always had a group of people around him. There isn’t a photo of him where he isn’t smiling, his mother recalls.
“His giggle was what everybody remembered,” TJ Burch said. “His giggle was one of those that made everybody laugh around him. He was smart and a hard worker. Good, solid, all-around kid. We can talk about Nolan all day, he’s that kind of a kid.”
Nolan Burch was excited to begin his fall semester at West Virginia University in 2014, where he planned to major in business administration and eventually attend law school. However, those goals and aspirations were halted when he decided to rush the Kappa Sigma fraternity and was subjected to hazing that resulted in his death.
The incidences of that night were the catalyst for WVU’s anti-hazing procedures. In 2015, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life was created to grant special attention to Greek life on campus, rather than treating fraternities and sororities as student organizations. In 2017, Matthew Richardson was chosen to serve as the director.
“The Nolan Burch tragedy was really a catalyst for WVU to start paying a little bit more attention — intentional attention if you will — on fraternity and sorority life,” Richardson said.
Rushing allows prospective members to get to know their future fraternity brothers or sorority sisters, which involves a series of events and gatherings they have to attend.
However, this period for some fraternities also sometimes involves hazing, or the act of initiating members through difficult and often, humiliating tasks, said Walter DeKeseredy, director of the WVU Research Center on Violence. This can include anything from isolation to sleep deprivation and even sexual acts.
“Hazing rituals can vary,” DeKeseredy said. “Sometimes they run naked in cold weather, going through spankings with paddles, a number of things. It depends, but they’re generally very degrading and humiliating. It strips them of individualistic thinking for sure. They are very, very closely tied to the fraternity. There’s secrecy. They lie on behalf of the fraternity brothers.”
Hazing affects more than just fraternity members. Fifty-five percent of college students involved in clubs, teams and organizations experience some form of hazing, according to a national study of student hazing by researchers from the University of Maine. However, in 95 percent of cases where students experienced hazing, they did not report the events. Forty-four states across the country have anti-hazing laws, including West Virginia.
There has been at least one hazing-related death on a North American college campus every year since 1959, according to Hank Nuwer, a journalist that maintains the Hazing Deaths database.
“Degradation ceremonies are designed to strip potential brothers of any bonds they have with those outside the fraternity,” DeKeseredy said. “They involve degradation and humiliation. People go through these degradation ceremonies because they think it’s so important to be part of the fraternity, but they’re very dangerous.”
It was during a pledging night that Nolan Burch’s blood-alcohol level became six times the legal limit to drive, causing the alcohol poisoning that led to his death, according to The Buffalo News. Security footage from that night shows Nolan Burch being dragged onto a table by fraternity members as they laugh and jump around him. He lay face-down on the table, head hanging off the edge. Later on, a member—who was not involved with Nolan Burch’s hazing—entered the room and tried to revive him as someone called 911. “Breathe for me, buddy!” can be heard in the background of the call, but help arrived too late.
“Thinking that our son was left and no one helped him for hours, that’s just infuriating to know, especially to know that Nolan could have been saved if he had been taken to the hospital and gotten the care that he deserved,” Kim Burch said. “To know that he’d still be here, that really makes me mad.”
WVU’s Anti-Hazing Measures
Since his arrival, Richardson has implemented a University-wide hazing prevention task force, which includes a committee of faculty, students and staff representing Greek life, athletics and many other organizations across campus.
“We do a number of different programs in different communities and collections of students to get them involved and understanding what hazing is and strategies to prevent it,” Richardson said. “The task force has also looked at different best practices that we can do to make sure that the University is engaging in those best practices.”
Last year, Richardson released the Reaching the Summit report, which details the new rules and regulations fraternities and sororities on campus must meet, from GPA requirements to in-house alcohol restrictions. The University is also planning to purchase hazing prevention and campus safety training software that fraternity and sorority students will be required to complete once it is approved.
“It’s very much like AlcoholEdu that our students have to do, but it’s personalized to WVU, so it will be very specific about what our code says, what West Virginia state code says and things like that,” Richardson said.
The Aftermath of the Burch Tragedy
Following Nolan Burch’s death, Kim and TJ Burch filed a lawsuit in the Monongalia County Circuit Court in 2015. In November 2018, the WVU Board of Governors settled the lawsuit for $250,000.
The lawsuit settled for more than $3 million in total, according to the Daily Athenaeum. The other parties agreeing to pay portions of the settlement were identified as Kappa Sigma Fraternity, former WVU students Richard Schwartz and Jordon Hankins, and landlords Thomas and Linda Richey
“It was almost four years ago and it’s never going to go away,” TJ Burch said. “It’s indescribable what you feel every day. There’s a missing part. There’s spiraling grief that you just don’t want people to go through it. It really is indescribable. It’s every single day.”
To ensure that no other family goes through what they have, the Burch’s have created a foundation in their son’s name to inform University students and staff around the country about hazing. They are currently working on a video using footage from inside the fraternity the night Nolan Burch died as well as reenactments to encourage students to be responsible and help their peers and, ultimately, to save lives, they both said.
“After I knew he wasn’t going to be okay and wasn’t going to come out of it, I promised [Nolan] that we were going to fight and make things right,” Kim Burch said. “He wasn’t going to die in vain.”
There are many, many families around the country that have suffered tragedies similar to the Burch case. Evelyn and Jim Piazza created the Anti-Hazing Coalition following their son’s death, where a fraternity hazing ritual left him unconscious with a fractured skull. The coalition, which launched after a retreat in South Carolina for families that have been affected by hazing, is striving to make hazing a felony punishable by up to seven years of prison.
Incidents across the country show that hazing has not only been a WVU-specific problem to fix.
Recently, nine fraternity members at Louisiana State University were arrested for hazing-related crimes performed during the fall 2018 semester after forcing pledges to lay on broken glass, pouring gasoline on them, attempting to burn them with cigarette butts and urinating on them, according to the Washington Post.
Collin Wiant, an Ohio University freshman, died of asphyxiation after Sigma Pi fraternity members forced him and other pledges to consume nitrous oxide, as well as drink a gallon of alcohol in 60 minutes, according to a lawsuit filed by his parents against Sigma Pi.
Amongst other things, he was also sleep deprived and beaten with a belt, according to the lawsuit.
“It’s not just fraternities,” Kim Burch said. “[Hazing is] on so many levels. It’s brainwashing. I think things are getting better, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”