Not an Isolated Incident After All

January 28, 2009

Debate surrounding the 2006 death of a Southern Methodist University student has been rekindled.

Earlier this week, Texas Monthly published a lengthy feature in its February issue concerning the death of Jake Stiles, a sophomore member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Stiles died of a drug overdose in the fraternity house and had alcohol, cocaine and fentanyl (a difficult-to-obtain, strong painkiller) in his system. University officials described his death -- which took place after a party celebrating the end of the fall semester -- as “an isolated incident.”

Jim Caswell, SMU vice president for student affairs, told the Dallas Morning News after Stiles’ death that, though the university has a strong anti-drug policy, “some students come here with these problems.” He also noted that he did not think the incident was indicative of a “chapterwide problem” and that he considered the case “resolved” to the satisfaction of the university. With the case seemingly closed, the university moved on.

Stiles’ father, however, was not satisfied, and took it upon himself to research his son’s untimely death. Now, more than two years after the incident, Stiles’ father has uncovered evidence that he believes the university ignored, and which he believes proves that his son’s death was not merely “an isolated incident” but part of a culture of drug abuse among those at his fraternity house at SMU -- long known to many in the Dallas area as a “party school.”

The Texas Monthly feature reveals a number of these discoveries. After months of repeatedly requesting and being denied access to it, Stiles’ father finally received the police report of his son’s death. Such documents are not always considered in the public domain for SMU -- whose police force is employed by the private institution itself -- and cannot be revealed in cases where it is believed that no crime was committed. Absent from the report, however, was evidence uncovered by Stiles’ father -- transcripts of text messages from his son’s phone from the night of his death. These mentioned common drugs among Stiles’ fraternity brothers and, Stiles’ father argued, belied the university’s line that there was no reason to believe someone from SMU had provided Stiles with drugs.

Stiles’ father believed these messages had been available to the police at the time of the original investigation -- and maintains they were forwarded from his son’s phone to the police chief -- but was dismayed to find out that they were not among the evidence mentioned in the report. Also, a number of potential suspects -- who might have provided Stiles with the illicit drugs -- were not interviewed for the original investigation.

The Texas Monthly feature recounts interviews with a number of Stiles’ fraternity brothers who cite the frequent use of drugs in the chapter, and it also raises the suspicion of Stiles’ father that the institution had attempted to brush his son’s death under the rug to save face. (Between December 2006 and May 2007, three undergraduates at SMU died from drug or alcohol overdoses.) The original police investigator of the Stiles case has since left SMU and refused to comment for that feature. Other SMU administrators had conflicting stories regarding the missing text message transcripts, which Stiles’ father believes would have led investigators to find his son’s death was anything but “an isolated incident.”

Officials from SMU refused to comment on the matter to Inside Higher Ed, but did release a statement written yesterday, noting that they are continuing to investigate the Stiles case.

“SMU disputes many of the assumptions and allegations contained in the recent article in Texas Monthly magazine,” reads the statement, without detailing any exact complaints. “The investigation is ongoing, and we will not jeopardize its progress by engaging in speculation or revealing premature information on fact-finding efforts. Our priority is to move forward in a responsible manner.”

In June 2007, following the deaths of three students in six months, SMU launched the Task Force on Substance Abuse Prevention. Kent Best, university spokesman, said the tragic incidents of that winter and spring led the institution to reconsider the student services it had in place.

Last fall, the university implemented a number of the task force’s recommendations. Among other new initiatives, SMU introduced “The Call for Help Program” -- which now allows students the ability to seek emergency medical care for themselves or friends as a result of drug or alcohol abuse without fear of being subject to disciplinary or criminal action. The institution notes that “this program is designed to encourage students to obtain medical assistance when alcohol or drug abuse is life threatening.”

Since Stiles’ death, SMU’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon has received five judicial reprimands, and was on disciplinary probation until May 1, 2008, stated Lori White, vice president for student affairs, in an e-mail. In a larger context at the university, however, she noted that "no one Task Force recommendation was directed solely at students who are members of fraternities and sororities."

Stiles’ father is still mourning the loss of his son and openly criticizes what he sees as the university’s incompetent investigation of this case. Despite this, he told Inside Higher Ed that his family has taken some solace in his research of his son’s case and they are now trying to move on with their lives.

“Our goal was simply to have the rest of the story told,” Tom Stiles said. “We think this allows us to have some closure. We have no further plans and don’t intend to work with the university further.”

Concerning the university’s “ongoing investigation” of his son’s death -- which apparently was stirred by Texas Monthly’s recent feature -- he said he had little faith.

“We don’t have high expectations of the investigation,” he said to Inside Higher Ed. “We feel that they simply are doing this to make themselves look good.”

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