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Parents who claim hazing led to Northwestern student's suicide fight for change

The mother of a former Northwestern University student is suing the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which she blames for her daughter's suicide. Jordan Hankins, 19, died in January 2017. The lawsuit against the sorority alleges that hazing "caused her severe anxiety and depression," which led Hankins to take her own life.

Alpha Kappa Alpha was suspended from Northwestern's campus in May 2017. The sorority tells CBS News it was deeply saddened by Hankins' death, saying it has a zero-tolerance policy for hazing. Still, Hankins' parents believe the sorority should be held responsible for their daughter's death.

Jordan Hankins

"She had a smile that would brighten up a room if you were feeling low or feeling down," mother Felicia Hankins told CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan. "Jordan just had this way of making you forget."

From a young age, Hankins had a passion for helping others and a gift when it came to playing sports. She won a full ride to Northwestern University on a basketball scholarship.

Her sophomore year, she told her parents she wanted to join a sorority as a way to serve others.

"Did hazing even cross your mind?" Duncan asked.

"When she first told me that she had an interest, I think most importantly, my concerns were that they were genuine in their mission," Felicia said.

Hankins' mother was on hand to watch the ceremony in which her daughter became an official member of Alpha Kappa Alpha. Felicia said she felt "a sense of pride, a sense of relief, you know, because the process was over."

But just seven weeks later, the 19-year-old took her own life in her dorm room.

"I couldn't reach her, so that was my concern," Felicia said. "So then I just started trying to call continuously – no answer, no answer. And so ultimately, she was found the next day."

"Even if you are part of a sorority or fraternity… it can happen to your family. It can happen and it did," father Walter Hankins said.

In a lawsuit against the sorority and nine members, Hankins' mother alleges that during post-initiation pledging, her daughter "was subjected to physical abuse including paddling… financial exploitation… sleep deprivation… and other forms of hazing intended to humiliate and demean her."

The court documents say "the hazing was triggering her PTSD, causing severe anxiety and depression and that she was having suicidal thoughts." According to the lawsuit, she expressed that to her sorority sisters. It's unclear what her PTSD stemmed from.

"You believe that if the sorority hadn't hazed, Jordan Hankins would still be alive today?" Duncan asked the Hankins' family attorney.

"That is what's alleged in the lawsuit, yes," attorney Brandon Vaughn said. "She sounded the alarm that the initiation practices that they were subjecting her to were causing harm and they didn't do anything about it."

"She told sorority members, 'I'm feeling suicidal.' Did she ever express that to any family and friends?" Duncan asked.

"I'm not going to comment on that," Vaughn said.

Tom Kline, who represents the family of Timothy Piazza, the Penn State sophomore who died in 2017 after a hazing ritual involving heavy drinking, said, "It's a dirty secret in America that the problem is pervasive and extensive in sorority life just as it is in fraternity life."

"The unique challenge in the case, of course for a lawyer, is linking the suicide to the actual hazing. But it does not take a quantum leap of imagination to understand that a young person who is deprived and subjected to physical hazing turns on herself," Kline said.

Two years after their daughter's death, Felicia and Walter said it's the happy memories with Hankins that keep them strong – and fighting for change.

"It's important that I speak out whether it was the first day after she passed away or today… so that hopefully someone else won't suffer the same fate," Felicia said.

Alpha Kappa Alpha tells CBS News it consistently educates members about hazing and the repercussions, including suspension and expulsion. They declined to comment further on the matter, citing the sensitive nature of Hankins' death.

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