After Their Son’s Death at a WSU Fraternity, Family Calls for Caution, and Change

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A Bellevue family has a cautionary warning.

Jolayne Houtz and Hector Martinez lost their son Sam Martinez in Pullman last November, after he was found in the basement of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity. The 19-year-old died from alcohol poisoning.

Washington State University has suspended the fraternity for six years. The family is now suing. They say their son’s death was the result of hazing.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

KUOW’s Paige Browning spoke with Sam’s parents about their son, and why they’re pushing for changes.

Hector: Sam was full of life. He was the joy of our life. He was an amazing athlete. He played many different sports. He started with soccer when he was three. I was his coach for a few years. Then he started playing at the same time baseball, and he played basketball. Because he played so many sports, we spent a lot of time in the car. We were goofing around many times, since he was little.

He finally started driving, but we were always having a lot of fun, all the time. That’s why he was so, for me, he was just an amazing kid. He one of my two treasures. I still have my beautiful daughter, but he was just everything, everything to me. As you can imagine, I just miss him every day.

Jolayne: Sam really just had it all going. He was funny, smart, loyal, kind to people. He loved doing community service projects. He grew up in a bilingual family and attended the Spanish Immersion program in the Bellevue School District, and spoke both languages fluently. He was really the light of our lives. It’s really unbearable to be without him now.

What happened that led to his death, last November, his fall semester at Washington State University?

Jolayne: What we’ve learned over these past months is that Sam and his entire pledge class at the fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, were the victims of a pervasive pattern of hazing that began really on the first day of school last August, and continued until Sam died on November 12, after being part of a hazing ritual as part of an initiation at the fraternity, and being forced to consume an excessive amount of alcohol.

We’ve learned that there’s this toxic culture of hazing and alcohol consumption on campuses. I think what’s particularly upsetting is that we’ve learned that universities and national fraternities know all of this and just look the other way. There’s a sense that we’ve kind of normalized this extreme behavior. We just can’t keep normalizing this as some cultural rite of passage when young men and young women are getting injured and killed as a result. It’s not acceptable. And we’re really seeking reforms, and more transparency in the system, so that parents and students know exactly what they’re going into with their eyes wide open.

There are many good things about fraternities for sure, there’s community service and the opportunity to develop leadership skills, but that comes at a price that is just too high.

You wrote a piece for The Seattle Times calling for universities to end toxic traditions, specifically around hazing. What changes do you want to see on campuses like WSU?

Jolayne: We think that a series of common sense reforms could go a tremendous distance to ensuring that no other family ends up in this situation. These are things like requiring universities to be fully transparent about the record and disciplinary status of the fraternities that they charter to be on their campuses. If we can delay Greek system recruitment by a semester or a year, waiting until students are more established, and more sure of themselves on campus, I believe they would bring more maturity to that decision.

Requiring a responsible adult who is living on the premises at all times. Any one of these things could have saved Sam’s life that night, and they weren’t in place. And we will always live with the consequences of that.

You’ve also filed a lawsuit against Washington State University, and the fraternity Alpha Tau Omega. What do you hope to achieve through the legal proceedings?

Jolayne: It wasn’t an easy decision to do this, but what we realized is we can’t stand by and let this happen to any other families. We really wanted to step up at the beginning of the school year to inform parents and students about this important decision that they’re making, in the context of many other decisions as students make that transition to college. What we most want is to protect other young men and young women, and end this tradition that results in too many of them getting hurt and killed.

What else do you want people to know about what happened to Sam and your experience?

Jolayne: Sam was just pushed to the brink by this ritual. And he’s not the only one. And WSU is not the only place where this is happening. This is a national problem. Students are vulnerable when they are just moving into the house for the first time, trying to establish themselves on campus and find a circle of friends to connect with. He was left to die alone in the basement of this fraternity house. It’s devastating. When you pledge a fraternity, you shouldn’t be pledging your life.

Hector: I just want to add, when you mention the six years they’re gonna be suspended, I mean, in six years Sammy will be maybe having kids, maybe having his second, his first job, in six years, and they will be back in business, but we will still be living with this grief, that we don’t have our son.

A WSU spokesperson says the university does not comment on pending litigation. Fraternity officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Listen to the interview by clicking here.

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