Humans of RE: Flavia Tomasello, mother of Antonio Tsialas ’19, on hazing, investigations, and fighting for change
March 17, 2021
In the fall of 2019, Ransom Everglades alum Antonio Tsialas ‘19 tragically passed away after a hazing incident during a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party at Cornell University. Tsialas was a passionate leader and immaculate representation of hard work and dedication, and his legacy continues to shine among RE students. His legacy is all the more reinforced by his mother, Flavia Tomasello, who is also the mother to current RE student Athena Tsialas ‘24 and Carver student Christopher Tsialas. Since the passing of her son, Tomasello has dedicated her new life to spreading awareness of the dangers of hazing. Tomasello ultimately transformed a devastating life experience into a source of motivation. She now leads the recently created Antonio Tsialas Leadership Foundation and aims to create a positive impact on teenagers by preparing them with the necessary information to make appropriate decisions in the future. While changing the world might seem like a difficult task, Tomasello’s heroic efforts certainly have the potential to save lives and prevent future tragedies such as her son’s.
I had the privilege of speaking with Tomasello on December 12th, 2020, via a digital Zoom call. During our hour and a half long conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the details of the investigation regarding Tsialas’ death, the failures in our current educational system that have obscured information about fraternities and their hazing rituals, and the most important lessons that students and parents alike can learn from Tsialas’ story.
If you don’t mind, can you go over the details of the weekend in which your son Antonio Tsialas passed away at Cornell University? What happened to your son, and what were you doing at the time?
I always say it all started as a beautiful weekend that turned out to be one of our worst nightmares. I went up to Ithaca, to Cornell, because it was a parents’ weekend. I left the day before [Thursday] because most of the activities were on Friday, so I wanted to be there earlier. My husband, John, was supposed to travel the next day, on Friday. So I got to Ithaca and I met with Antonio for dinner, and it was a beautiful dinner because he was so happy. I had seen him two weeks before at a family meeting in New Hampshire, so we knew about Antonio’s state of mind and how he was doing. At the dinner we talked about how happy he was, about how he wanted to introduce me to his friends the next day, and how he had just become a campus tour guide. He wanted to try everything and belong to so many organizations. He was studying economics, so he knew he wanted to join an investment club, and that night we spoke a lot about interviews. He was just so involved, so diverse in his interests, and very academically inclined.
One of the benefits of the parent weekend is that you get to go to the classes with your child, so we agreed to meet the next day [Friday] at 11 A.M. at the bookstore, and he would then take me to his classes, and then the plan was for Antonio to give us a tour of the campus on Saturday so that John could attend. Everything sounded very normal, but he kept checking the time on his phone, and so I noticed it seemed like he had an appointment. I asked him why he was in a rush and told him that it was only eight o’clock, and he told me he had to leave dinner because he was working on an econ project. He said he was going to go to RPCC (Robert Purcell Community Center), which is the area where students often meet. He didn’t tell me he was going to a party, and we didn’t talk about any fraternities, so I was pretty calm and didn’t have any concerns about anything.
I didn’t talk to him that night anymore. The next morning I was waiting for him at the bookstore, but he didn’t show up. I was thinking very positively, thinking that maybe his phone died and that was why he was not answering my messages. I went up to his room and saw his suitemates, who said Antonio had gone to a party.
What are your thoughts on how the police handled the investigation and how the university as an institution handled Antonio’s death?
I don’t want to make judgments really, but we were left with no information at the beginning. It was very sad because here we are, two parents, just looking for their child, and things were not connecting. A lot of things seemed transparent to us, we all learned about things on our own. There were friends of Antonio who helped us by saying where the party was and what type of fraternity it was, but all the police told us was that they were investigating a party and that some kids did not return to their dorm rooms that night. I went to the police and filed a report for a missing person, and at that point I was really concerned about Antonio’s wellbeing because we didn’t know anything. I told them that we had to use any resources that they had, and suggested calling the Ithaca police, calling the state police, doing anything that they needed to look for Antonio. Of course they were still investigating, but we were continuously after them all the time and just left in the dark until they found Antonio. That led us to use our own resources to investigate this with the purpose of trying to learn more. We were not getting answers, and when my husband came, I told him that we should go back to where the party took place and try to find him. The first piece of information we received was from one of the students we found at the house where the party took place, who suggested that maybe Antonio had gone to an afterparty. But Antonio was not the type to go to an afterparty, especially by himself. My husband and I went searching around some of the places they had told us the afterparty might have taken place, but we had no luck. It wasn’t until around 3 P.M. on that Saturday that Antonio was finally found.
It’s certainly a difficult task to collect sufficient, concrete evidence about an occurrence like this in a moment when students are drunk and have no recollection of events. But as time went on and there were deeper investigations, what kind of information, if any, has been revealed, and what information is still missing to this day about the details of the occurrence?
Well, they revealed that there was significant hazing at the house that night, and also that he was part of this list to basically be admitted into the fraternity. It was important in terms of the school recognizing that this was in fact an act of hazing, because at the beginning they didn’t seem to be very open to that idea when we started to bring it up. As for missing information, Antonio’s phone is still missing, so the question is, where is the phone? We haven’t been able to retrieve any information regarding the phone, as well as his shirt. Supposedly Antonio’s shirt that he had under his Ransom soccer hoodie was a white shirt that we feel has not been deeply investigated. All his personal belongings were with him, so it’s strange that there’s little to no information regarding these items.
At this point, what are your thoughts on that missing information? Have you found a way to cope with the idea that it has been more than a year and it is still unknown, or is it still lingering in the back of your mind that you’d want to know more details about that missing information?
I can’t really speak for my husband, and I don’t really know the steps [to cope] at this point. All his personal belongings were with him, so it’s strange that there’s little to no information regarding these items.
Can you explain your stance on hazing and describe what problems arise from it?
We both [Flavia and John] feel very strong about raising awareness about hazing. One of the main characteristics or traits of hazing is the secrecy. So by keeping it secret, no one knows that hazing might be going on. For us, the intention has always been towards education. Antonio has left and no one can bring him back, but it makes me feel terrible the fact that there are other kids who have to go through what Antonio went through. I have been giving speeches [about hazing], and some people have shared with me that they had a friend who was hazed, and they had to live their lives with that terrible feeling. So there is a lot to do in terms of education and changing culture.
We started very early with Ransom. We shared what we knew, because the secrecy is still very, very present in these types of events. This is not a campaign against fraternities; in fact, I’m not against fraternities myself. I hope that everyone joins organizations, because I love them. I belong to many organizations myself, and I like to contribute. I mean, that’s what we came for, right? But for us, it’s more about giving students the tools from what we know and from our experiences. We are not experts, we are not psychologists, we are not lawyers, but we would like to help students make safe choices and balance the sense of being part of an adventure with the risk of one’s own safety, and the risk of joining some organizations.
Our mission is to raise awareness about some of these organizations and ensure students are researching what their practices are for welcoming new members, as well as if they’ve had any misconduct in the past. I don’t want to make generalizations; however, I can discern that there are some organizations that don’t have really good purposes. We later learned through our civil lawsuit that this organization [Phi Kappa Psi] had been penalized in the past for misbehavior. I think this information is very important, and if I can make one contribution to this world, it will be to spread the significance of research and present alternatives to this deadly culture.
Some of the main issues include binge drinking and peer pressure. Antonio never came back home drunk; he wasn’t one to drink much. But when they were telling us about this group of kids that had gone to the party and had lost consciousness, I could not believe it. I kept saying to myself, “This is not Antonio.” These organizations don’t just plan a party to get drunk and have a good time. They create a skillfully planned party with a purpose to harm. If you get into the statistics, at least one student dies of hazing every year in college, and at least a thousand die due to binge drinking. So when you put the binge drinking, the peer pressure, and the secrecy together, it really is not a good combination.
You mentioned one of the main changes in your life has been not only to inform yourself about the dangers of hazing, but also to embark on a mission to spread more awareness about the terrible ritual. What are some of the activities that you’ve started doing as part of the Antonio Tsialas Leadership Foundation that was recently created?
Well, we started with Ransom because they were open to our activities, so we decided to connect, and we told them that we were going to be there to help students. We began with a yearly meeting for the seniors as part of the college process. We wanted to make it a positive experience while educating you guys. We don’t want anybody to be really scared. Again, we really hope you guys join organizations and fraternities and sororities. But we want to make you aware of some of the risks that are involved in being part of those organizations so that this [Antonio’s story] does not happen again. That’s our main focus.
Despite his passing, Antonio continues to be an inspiration to so many people. The Antonio Tsialas Leadership Scholarship was founded in his name by Cornell University to create awareness of the dangers of hazing and to commemorate a compassionate young leader whose life ended far too soon. But the goals of the Antonio Tsialas Leadership Foundation are even more ambitious. We seek to fund compassionate leadership programs that will empower students to make good decisions, that will help them balance adventure and new experiences with safe and compassionate choices, all while raising awareness of hazing and bullying practices. We hope to change the deadly culture on college campuses everywhere, so that what happened to Antonio will never happen again.
What failures currently exist in our educational system, both at the high school and the collegiate level, that allow for such occurrences to still occur year after year across the nation? More specifically, what kind of changes should Ransom Everglades make to their education in order to ensure students are prepared to make the best decisions for their health and safety?
We feel strongly that the education has to start even in middle school. As I got more and more informed and I reached out to more organizations that have been working with hazing, I learned that they find hazing occurrences in middle school, which is very scary. It might not be familiar to Ransom, but when I saw that, I knew that through the Antonio Tsialas Leadership Foundation, we had to set a mission to help students instill those values of compassionate leadership. We are teaching students about compassion, and about being a welcoming person. We feel that a true leader is someone who accepts difference, inclusiveness, and spreads love. Antonio was always so accepted and welcomed; it was something special about him. So to find that hazing had discouraged this sense of welcome that we had always seen in Antonio was really shocking.
You currently have a younger daughter and son who are still growing up, but soon enough they’ll also reach the stage in which they transition to college, and as you said, the education should be starting at a younger age. As a mother, what are you doing, if anything, to prepare them to face the dangers of the college experience?
I cannot teach them to hurt people. I am still doing what I did with Antonio, which is encouraging them to have trust. I cannot tell them “don’t love.” I tell them to be kind, to be their best, and to do their homework by researching. I encourage them to join organizations and tell them not to be afraid of being involved. But I also alert them not to rush into things. I tell them to ask themselves, “Is this the organization that I want to be a part of?” Today there are so many resources available, and I encourage them to identify whether the organization fits with our values and priorities.
You have told me about your message for students. But I’m curious, what is your message for the parents of these kids who are about to start their college journeys? What should their role be in protecting their kids?
Start the conversation. You have to start these conversations early on with your child. We have information about SAT’s, GPA’s. We have all this information about our kids. But we did not know about this [hazing] and how this is something that is so close to our kids. I never imagined that somebody could hurt Antonio. We had a conversation about trust, and about how he was moving away to a school on his own. But never about organizations. Parents should start conversations about what organizations, and fraternities if that’s the case, their children would want to join, and if they are really the organizations they feel comfortable with joining.
After such a tragedy, some people stop working because it is almost impossible to go through the day without thinking about the tragedy. Others engage in new hobbies that distract them from the event, while some even change their daily routine so as to prevent continued sadness. For you, what kind of changes did you see in your personal life?
I love that question. Many changes. One of them was going back to the kitchen. The kitchen has been very healing for me. I cooked on weekends, but I was not like my mother who spent so much time in the kitchen. In times of loss and deep sadness, I’ve always gone back to the kitchen. It brings not only healing and creativity, but a way to give. I started to give granolas to my neighbors, and they would ask me for recipes. I love writing recipes. So while I’m not a cook, the kitchen has been a huge part of my recovery process.
Antonio has certainly left a tremendous impact on the RE community, and his legacy has continued to live on. What has the RE community meant to you throughout this entire process as you continue to recover from this tragedy?
An immense support, immense. There is not a day that I don’t receive something from Ransom, just little gifts. That’s the beauty. My husband tells me to think about that, about the beauty in the pain. This is the beauty that Ransom brings me every day. Some of them might not have been wrapped, but there is always a parent that calls me or sends me a text from the RE community. Ransom has brought us so much support, happiness, and unconditional love. I cannot describe the feeling.