PLYMOUTH, N.H. -- Blindfolded and crowded into an SUV, the six Sigma Kappa Omega pledges made it less than a mile from the sorority's off-campus headquarters Monday night before the worst happened: a swerve on the wet, winding road, a crash, and the sudden, stunning loss of one of their friends, 20-year-old Kelly Nester, a pledge who was thrown from the vehicle and killed.
The death has shaken the small, rural campus of Plymouth State University, where Nester studied early childhood education. Police have not said that the overcrowded car trip was part of a sorority hazing ritual, but they opened a criminal investigation into the accident on Thursday. Plymouth police Captain Steve Temperino said last week that the blindfolds, along with reports that the Jeep Grand Cherokee, packed with 10 people, was being jerked from side to side on purpose to scare the pledges, point to the possibility of hazing, outlawed in New Hampshire for a decade.
While Nester's death revives national concern about hazing -- long seen as a fraternity problem, but recently increasing at sororities -- it also highlights the risks of unrecognized fraternities and sororities, a potentially dangerous trend in Greek life on campus.
Sigma Kappa Omega, the sorority Nester was pledging, was an unrecognized group with no national affiliation, started last spring by former members of a recognized, on-campus sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha, which reportedly asked them to leave. Unrecognized Greeks outnumber officially sanctioned groups at Plymouth State, where seven fraternities and sororities are recognized, and eight more operate outside the school's oversight, said Tracie Massey, assistant director of student activities.
"We see the unrecognized groups as a challenge, since they don't fall under college sanctioning, and we have no idea what they're doing out there," Massey said. "We provide antihazing education for the recognized groups, but the unrecognized ones don't receive the same privileges and support."
As colleges cracked down on underage drinking during the last decade, more fraternities and sororities were shut down or pushed off campus. And while deaths from alcohol or hazing happen both in official and "underground" groups, specialists said there are added risks for independents: less supervision by college officials or alumni; isolation from education and outreach; and freedom from the rules and requirements of colleges and national fraternities or sororities, some of which require advisers to live with chapter members.
At Yale University, where four students were killed in a car accident in January after a night of rush-week partying, all fraternities are independent. At California State University in Los Angeles, two pledges who drowned last fall in an apparent hazing episode were joining a sorority that had not yet won recognition from its national parent because it didn't have enough members.
Hank Nuwer, an Indiana college professor who has studied the Greek system for decades, said hazing "is all about power and status," and new or unrecognized groups "can get status quickly by toughening up the requirements in terms of hazing."
"When a group becomes local, it's been under all these rules, and suddenly all bets are off," he said.
Located two hours north of Boston in the foothills of the White Mountains, Plymouth State has rebounded in recent years from a drop in enrollment that followed the 1990s tightening of admissions standards. Campus renovations helped draw more out-of-state students; retention improved, and in August, to sharpen competitiveness, the school's name was changed, making it a university instead of a college.
Though there are dozens of clubs and student activities, some students said last week that Greek organizations dominate the social scene, though just a few hundred of the 3,800 students are members. Few fraternities and sororities have their own houses on campus, but they host weekend parties, open to all, in student apartments and rented off-campus houses where many members choose to live together.
Students said they hear rumors about hazing, but because group members are pledged to secrecy, it's hard to know what's true. "I blame the people being hazed as much as the people doing the hazing, because why wouldn't you come forward and report it?" said one member of a recognized sorority who asked that her name not be used.
After a college investigation last spring, another Plymouth State sorority, Tau Omega, lost its recognition for behavior that included pouring food on pledges' heads, said Massey. Other sororities around the country have faced discipline or derecognition in recent years for branding pledges, abandoning them in the woods, or depriving them of sleep.
A lawyer for the 20-year-old who was driving when Nester was killed told the Union Leader of Manchester that the group was heading down Route 3 to a store to buy snacks when the accident happened -- not to drop off the blindfolded pledges in the woods, as some have speculated. He also said the car was not jerked from side to side on purpose. Police are awaiting conclusive test results, but have said alcohol probably wasn't a factor.
Temperino, the police captain, said the university has become much stricter about alcohol use in dorms, and "has done a good job of penalizing fraternities that cause problems." As a result, he said, more partying has gravitated to residential neighborhoods near Plymouth's picturesque downtown, where signs boast of its seventh-place rank in the book "The 100 Best Small Towns in America."
Friday night, as local children paraded around the town common in Halloween costumes, dark curtains were drawn across the windows of the big, white house on Crawford Street where Sigma Kappa Omega members live, and where the fatal car trip began. A metal pail on the porch was filled with cigarette butts, and a young woman who answered the door explained politely that no one inside wanted to comment. Some group members attended Nester's funeral Friday in Rhode Island.
Back on campus, one young woman who considered pledging the unrecognized sorority said the tragedy has changed her plans.
"If I had gone for it, I could have been in that car," said Jennifer Torrey, a freshman from Peabody, Mass.
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.