The last thing Sydney Lumpkin remembers is dropping her solo cup in the middle of a crowded Theta Kappa Phi party at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house.
“I was like ‘Ok, I gotta get myself out of here,’ and then after that it just was like dark for four hours,” Lumpkin says.
What followed has rocked Sewanee’s Greek community. Lumpkin’s decision to report her blackout drunk experience that day prompted an investigation that recently led to the suspension of the TKP sorority, the oldest female Greek organization on campus. Lumpkin says she decided to make her story public because she believes the University community needs to come to grips with the kinds of issues she experienced.
Several of Lumpkin’s friends confirmed her account but spoke on condition of anonymity because they do not want to be drawn into a public controversy. Members of TKP declined to be interviewed. In an appeal of their suspension,members of the sorority wrote that they had offered to make changes but were rebuffed by University officials. The sorority’s appeal also alleged that the University’s investigation unfairly subjected TKP members to aggressive and inappropriate questions and treatment from an outside investigator that amounted to bullying and sexual harrassment.
In the account Lumpkin and her two friends gave to The Purple about that April day at the SAE house, Lumpkin ended up on University Avenue. She says she must have bolted out the SAE’s front door, and she later wondered why no one from the party – and no one from her sorority – had followed her. Lumpkin says all she knows is that a friend who is not a member of TKP got a call from her and came out to find her. That friend told The Purple that she found Lumpkin running down University Avenue.
In an account confirmed by that friend and another who also helped her that day, Lumpkin says she was spotted trying to get into a random person’s car. One of the two friends says Lumpkin drifted in and out of consciousness as they carried her up her dormitory stairs and into a bathroom. They couldn’t get her to throw up, which is when the fear of alcohol poisoning began. She kept hitting her head, according to one friend who was there, because she kept falling while trying to vomit.
Her friends told her later that they were confused about where her TKP sorority sisters were and why they didn’t help her. One of the anonymous friends says she called the only TKP member they knew, a student who happened to be off-campus at the time and did not attend the Family day event. According to this witness, that TKP member initially asked them not to take Lumpkin to the hospital because the sorority was already in trouble with the University. The friend says that she told the TKP member that day that she had a car ready to take Lumpkin to get medical help. The friend recalls that she was frustrated and asked the TKP member why she shouldn’t file a hazing complaint. Hours later, that TKP member texted the same friend, writing that no TKP would tell Lumpkin not to go to the hospital, and if hazing did occur to Lumpkin, then it would have had to come from a new member unfamiliar with the standards of the sorority.
Eventually, Lumpkin and her friends say, she threw up and began to show signs of recovery, so they decided that going to the hospital was not necessary.
Though Lumpkin says she does not have much of a memory from that day, she does remember how none of her TKP friends tried to help her.
“It was horrifying, and embarrassing too because I’ve drank before,” Lumpkin says, “but I’ve never been to that point where I don’t remember four hours of a period.. I still don’t know what was in [the punch]. The girls that did reach out, it was more out of concern for ‘what she’s saying about it’ not ‘is she ok how can we help?’” The Purple has reached out to multiple TKP members and those contacted declined to comment.
Lumpkin told The Purple that the event she eventually reported to Student Life started at the TKP house and ended at the party at the SAE house. It was the sorority’s “Family day,” when the members were organized by two seniors, two juniors, and two sophomores who made the punch and divided the newest members into groups dubbed “big-little” families. Whether it was the 99-proof shooter that members of her TKP family gave her that Family Day, or the two cups of mystery punch Lumpkin says the family made and offered later, her level of intoxication and her perceived abandonment by her TKP sisters was her breaking point. She soon dropped out of the sorority. After her friends insisted that she had been hazed, Lumpkin says she also decided to report her experiences to Greek Life Director, Donald Abels. Instead of using the online portal to report hazing, Lumpkin gathered photos, screenshots of text conversations, and other evidence and showed up to Abels’ office. Abels declined to comment on the investigation.
Lumpkin recounts many events which she believes constitute hazing, such as mandatory pledge tasks.
Each Shake day, when potential new members (PNMs) receive their bid cards, sorority PNMs are often instructed to meet their pledge trainer at a specified location to begin festivities. On her Shake Day, Lumpkin says, TKP’s pledge trainers were thirty minutes to an hour late to meet them. Once they finally arrived she says, the TKP trainers screamed in pledges’ faces, “WHO ARE YOU?”.
Lumpkin and her class answered “Teacups” (a nickname for TKPs). She recalls the actives yelling, “No! You’re nothing, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole.”
The Shake Day experience that Lumpkin recounts is similar to an incident cited as wrongdoing on a new Greek organization violations page on the University’s website. In the cited incident, from Shake day Easter 2022, University officials wrote that TKP pledges had to learn chants and then had to recite them at fraternity houses across campus. As Lumpkin described her Shake Day chants and as they were later summarized on the University website, TKP pledges were told to yell sexually explicit chants that included invitations for sexual advances.
Lumpkin says actives quizzed her and other pledges about the history of TKP and its earlier members, urging them to chug whatever was in their cups if they couldn’t answer. That day, Lumpkin recalls, the only thing she drank was beer.
“I don’t know any girl that came out pretty sober [on Shake day]…” Lumpkin says, “The pledge trainers would come around and go like who’s this, and if you didn’t know their name you would have to chug and things like that.”
Lumpkin also emphasizes that her “shakee,” the active TKP required to stay by her side all day, never hazed her. That TKP member kept saying that Lumpkin did not have to do anything she didn’t want to do. Rather, Lumpkin says it was mainly the pledge trainers and older girls in the sorority who led the chanting and calls to drink.
She acknowledges that she wasn’t forced to drink, but she adds, “it’s a power imbalance. I felt like I’m younger, I’m in the sorority, who am I to say no to them. It’s like they said, we’re nothing, we’re below, it’s like everyone else in the sorority, we have to earn our spot.”
When she sat down with TKP’s president and vice-president about dropping the sorority, Lumpkin says, the sorority’s officers told her that friendship came first and the sorority came second. The University launched its investigation in May, hiring an outside investigator. Later that summer, as the University’s outside investigators intensified their inquiry, Lumpkin recalls, she noticed that TKP’s executive council members blocked her on social media. Considering that she was the only pledge who dropped out of her class, Lumpkin says it was clear to her that the sorority knew she had reported them.
Other hazing events that Lumpkin described to The Purple include what she called ‘Virgin Week’ –a week before initiation when pledges could not talk to any boys, kiss anybody, or have sex. Lumpkin says the sorority’s leaders told her and her fellow pledges that the tradition had been even more extreme in prior years. She recalls them saying that past pledges were not allowed to use personal hygiene products during that week.
Adding that such practices were ingrained in TKP lore, Lumpkin adds, “…like the president said, because we all had to do it so you all have to do it.”
“They had our locations [tracking each pledge through their cell phones] indefinitely from shake-day, and text us during the week like, ‘hey guys, have fun tonight, make sure that y’all are going back to your dorms because we will be checking your locations,” Lumpkin says. There were few discussions about what was happening with her fellow pledges, she says, and when she questioned what was happening, other pledges told her they didn’t feel the same way. Until the incident on Family day, Lumpkin added, she didn’t talk much about her experiences outside of the sorority. After the night on University Avenue, many of her friends from other sororities did tell her that it sounded to them like she was forced to drink, but they also told her that it was up to her to decide whether to go to University authorities.
“My friends who weren’t in a sorority noticed I wasn’t encouraging them to up-rush TKP, and it was honestly because I didn’t want to ever see them get hazed,” Lumpkin says.
After going to Student Life and making a report to Greek Life Director Abels, Lumpkin recalls, she talked to her mom on the phone. Her mother said that she hadn’t said anything earlier when Lumpkin described sorority life because she thought Lumpkin was enjoying herself. Her mother was angry when she found out about the Family day incident but also grateful her friends outside the organization took care of her, Lumpkin recalls.
“Contrary to what people say about Donald, he was very helpful and understanding.” Lumpkin says, “I gave him all of the evidence that I had, all the stuff that I had. We communicated a little bit over the summer, and I hadn’t heard from him that much… but I didn’t think there was anything that was going to come of it, people were saying they didn’t think anything would come of it. He was very passionate about making sure there was some kind of repercussion for them…”
Lumpkin says she went to authorities because she wanted her story to be on the record for any future new member who reported similar experiences. At most, she thought the sorority would be ordered to go dark for the semester. While she received a few informal updates from Abels over the summer, Lumpkin found out about TKP’s four-year disbandment with the entire student body in August. She never interacted with the private investigators, she says, and she had little correspondence with anyone in the administration over the summer.
“Just because I was the only one who came forward, I was not the only one who was investigated, I was told numerous times that just my story couldn’t have gotten them kicked off-campus,” Lumpkin says, “Of the people interviewed [by the University’s investigators], there were several who confirmed the things that I said. TKP even with their shake-days, it’s been a trend for them to continuously go dark after their shake-days for the last few years, so they’ve gotten warnings. I think just because they’ve finally gotten an actual punishment, that they’re mad, but they’ve gotten multiple warnings for many years.”
Today, Lumpkin says she feels the stares and hears whispers about her on-campus, and girls who had been her friends before they rushed TKP together no longer speak to her.
“I think they blame it all on me, saying things like ‘well, she wanted to drink,’ and that kind of thing…I was walking towards one of the senior TKPs, and she got off the sidewalk and walked around me because she didn’t want to walk on the same sidewalk as me,” Lumpkin says.
Lumpkin adds that she is grateful for the support the administration has given her; many have opened their doors, understanding the social difficulty she is going through. Although TKP received a stronger punishment than Lumpkin expected, she says she does not regret reporting them.
“At some point it needed to come out, the things that they were doing, and I think they weren’t willing to change, even when I talked to the president, she said she was hazed really bad her year but it’s gotten better. Things got better, but we’re still being hazed. If I’m being hazed to the point where my friends think they should take me to the hospital for alcohol poisoning, then obviously there needs to be more change, and they’re not willing to change that,” Lumpkin says.
Despite her experience, Lumpkin still believes in Sewanee’s Greek system. As a freshman, Lumpkin says, she did not intend to rush because she only knew the experiences from large state schools, but like many others on the Mountain, she ultimately decided to join in because Sewanee’s rush system felt different. She says she plans to up-rush to try and join another sorority this fall.
“I know other Greek organizations on-campus that aren’t mistreating its members and are worthwhile being in. I just think I had a really bad experience, but I’m glad I came out of it and spoke my truth, and other people heard me.”