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Colleges not as powerful against fraternities as you might think

American college fraternities have been around for nearly 200 years. The first was established in 1825.

One of the nation's largest fraternities - Sigma Alpha Epsilon - is banning pledging, effective Sunday. Bloomberg reports more SAE pledges died - at least 10 since 2006 - than any other fraternity.

Journalist Caitlin Flanagan spent a year researching the campus power wielded by frats, and her article, "The Dark Power of Fraternities," is the cover story of this month's The Atlantic magazine.

In her article, Flanagan notes, "In many substantive ways, fraternities are mightier than the colleges and universities that host them."

That influence comes from a number of things, according to Flanagan, but among them, is the "huge" amount of student housing that the schools don't have to pay for, Flanagan explained on "CBS This Morning: Saturday."

"One of eight of every American undergraduate lives in Greek housing. Colleges don't have to pay for that housing, maintain it or insure it," she said. "Getting rid of all that housing would be a huge problem for the colleges."

Another way frats have influence is through college giving, Flanagan said. "Fraternity men give huge amounts of money to their alma maters," she explained. "If a college president does something to the fraternity chapter that the fraternity men don't like, they'll cut the money off instantly and redirect it to the fraternity, not to the colleges, so the college presidents aren't as powerful against fraternities as people often think."

In addition to investigating influence, Flanagan also addressed some of the biggest problems at fraternities today, which she said she found surprising. "I had assumed before I wrote the piece that hazing was the number one problem because that's what you always read - these very bizarre, almost sadistic cases of inflicted trauma - but when I looked at these internal documents of the fraternity industry, hazing is the least common problem. It's only 7 percent. Most common is assault and battery.

She continued, "These kids get liquored up and they get in horrible fights. There's a kid in a coma in Pennsylvania just in the last few days. He broke up a fight at a frat house. Somebody punched him, roundhouse punch. He hit the cement, and he's in a coma - very desperate situation. That's number one. Number two ... sexual assault. Fifteen percent of all of the claims are young women coming forward and saying, 'I was sexually assaulted at the fraternity house.' Parents, particularly of daughters, need to understand that the fraternity industry is quite explicit about the huge amount of sexual assault claims that they're dealing with, and they're not coming forward and saying these are insubstantive claims. For the most part, they're paying these claims."

Fraternity members are required to take out insurance, but, Flanagan noted, the insurance may not cover members in situations they'd expect.

She said, "The general assumption by their parents who are back home is, 'OK, this insurance will protect my son, should he get involved in a nasty piece of litigation, should the worst happen.' In fact, the insurance they pay for protects the fraternity against their son.

"If their son makes a huge mistake, and the fraternity is held liable, the insurance he paid into is going to help pay the fraternity's part of the claim while the actual young man is going to get cut from insurance immediately, probably dropped from the fraternity and - believe it or not - the single most surprising thing I learned is that the sum of money that pays his damages is his parents' homeowner's insurance," she said.

Fraternities have shared common risk management policies that are "extremely strict," Flanagan added.

"The kind of behavior that's expected legally of a fraternity man is so squeaky clean few of us would pass it today, let alone when we were college students," she said. "There's a huge gulf between the risk management policy and life as it's actually lived on these campus fraternity houses."

After so many reports about fraternities in the news, Flanagan said parents are starting to seek reforms.

As for colleges and universities, they're currently in a "terrible position," Flanagan said, because students can freely associate where they want. "The university can't come and say, 'You can't belong to a private club that exists on a private land.' It's sort of like saying, 'You can't go to 7-11 off-campus.' You can go to 7-11, you can go to the Elks Club, you can join the fraternity."

"Colleges are really in a bind, and they're kind of motivated not to get super involved in shutting them down because the more they are involved, the more they are policing them, the more they establish a legal duty of care, and so parents can say, 'Oh, university, you understood that these things were going on. You had monitoring in place, therefore when my child is injured, it's partly your fault because your monitoring fell through the cracks.'"