Hazing Laws, Legal Consequences, and The Fight Against Hazing

Recent Developments in Hazing Laws

On August 13, 2018, New York Governor Cuomo signed a hazing bill (S.2755) into law, that makes fraternity and sorority hazing during the initiation or affiliation ceremonies resulting in physical injury a crime punishable by up to one year in jail. This legislation was prompted by the death of 18-year-old Chun “Michael” Deng, of Queens, who died after suffering a head injury during a fraternity hazing ritual in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. Cheng was blindfolded, forced to wear a heavy backpack and then repeatedly tackled. He was knocked unconscious and later died at a hospital.

The New York legislation is just one example of anti-hazing regulations recently passed or pending in response to the numerous hazing incidents that have garnered national attention over the past couple of years.

USA Today compiled a list of Greek life suspensions due to fraternity or sorority hazing in 2017. One of those occurred at Louisiana State University (LSU) when all Greek activities were suspended after the hazing death of Maxwell Gruver, who was forced to drink alcohol during a fraternity ritual. The autopsy found that he had a blood alcohol level of .495. After Gruver’s death, LSU President F. King Alexander appointed a Greek Life Task Force, and in February 2018 adopted its recommendations to impose stricter rules around fraternity events that serve alcohol.

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards also signed four hazing bills into law earlier this year:

  • HB793 requires colleges and universities that receive state funding to provide hazing prevention education to all incoming students, beginning in the fall semester of 2019. In addition, fraternities and similar organizations must provide at least one hour of hazing prevention education to its current and prospective members annually.
  • HB78 — the “Max Gruber Act” — became effective August 1, 2018, making hazing a crime that is punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and up to 5 years’ imprisonment if the hazing results in death, regardless of whether the person voluntarily allowed themself to be hazed or consented to the hazing. This law also imposes fines of up to $10,000 on fraternities, sororities, associations, social clubs, athletic teams and similar groups on college or high school campuses that knowingly allow hazing.
  • To encourage reporting, HB270 was passed to protect against disclosure under the Public Records Law the identity of any student who reports code of conduct violations, effective August 1, 2018.
  • Finally, HB466 requires a person who engages in reckless behavior to seek emergency medical assistance when another person is injured by that reckless behavior, including binge drinking or other hazing activity; failure to seek or provide reasonable assistance to the injured person is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, or up to one year’s imprisonment, or both. If the failure to call 911 results in death, it is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000, or five years’ imprisonment, or both. This law became effective on August 1, 2018.

Max Gruver’s parents have now sued LSU for $25 million, claiming Title IX violations based on the university’s failure to stop the fraternity hazing that led to their son’s death. The Gruvers’ complaint alleges that LSU’s “policy and practice of treating the hazing of male students significantly less seriously than the hazing of female students, minimiz[es] the hazing of males as ‘boys being boys’ engaged in masculine rites of passage.”

The Gruvers’ complaint cites data from the five years before their son’s death, showing that 23 of the 27 LSU fraternities had risk-management violations that included 20 formal hazing policy violations, compared to only one hazing incident reported at an LSU-recognized sorority. According to the complaint, none of the fraternities’ charters were revoked and only three were suspended for a period of three years; but the sorority, whose hazing incident did not involve life-threatening activities, was put on “total probation” for 10 months, followed by one year of university probation.

There are also anti-hazing bills currently pending in the Indiana, Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania legislatures. In Indiana, HB1393 would require a state-funded university to develop and implement a hazing prevention education program for all new students as part of their new student orientation, no later than August 1, 2019. This bill would also amend the definition of criminal hazing to specifically include rituals that determine membership, such as forcing someone to do something degrading, or that creates a substantial risk of physical or mental injury or emotional distress.

In Maryland, HB368 would require every college and university to:

  • Adopt a written hazing policy
  • Provide students with a hazing prevention education program
  • Provide the General Assembly with annual reports on its hazing policies, the number of hazing incidents reported, and the outcomes of those reports

Legislation pending in Ohio (HB360) would require public colleges and universities to adopt a policy regarding harassment, intimidation, bullying, and hazing that addresses penalties, sanctions, fines, the withholding of a diploma or transcript, probation, suspension, and expulsion for policy violations.

In Pennsylvania, Tim Piazza’s parents worked with legislators on the “Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law” (SB1090), that was signed by Governor Wolf on October 19, 2018:

  • Creating the crime of aggravated hazing, a third-degree felony
  • Creating the crime of institutional hazing if a fraternity or other organization “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly promotes or facilitates” a hazing event, punishable by fines and forfeiture of property involved in the hazing
  • Providing immunity from alcohol violations if evidence of the offense was revealed because the person sought emergency services for someone who needed medical assistance  

Penn State’s President Eric Barron and the presidents of LSU and Florida State University are “are among a small, but growing, cohort of college presidents who say they are tired of worrying every weekend that a student is going to die at a fraternity event.” Barron said that they hope a “national entity,” possibly NASPA, will maintain scorecards for Greek organizations across the country to inform students and their parents. However, as pointed out in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Barron recognizes the difficulty of translating policies into culture change: Tim Piazza died at a fraternity that had pledged to keep its house alcohol free.

Parents Fighting For Anti-Hazing Regulations and Their Unlikely Coalition

The Washington Post reported that Jim Piazza and Rich Braham — whose sons died in fraternity hazing rituals — met with Judson Horras, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 fraternities, to talk about how to prevent hazing tragedies. “While we may seem like strange bedfellows, we all want the same thing — to end hazing, so other parents don’t have to experience what we have,” said Jim Piazza.

This unlikely coalition now includes the parents of Max Gruver and Harrison Kowiak, the National Panhellenic Conference representing 26 sororities, the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values, the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, and HazingPrevention.org.

The Piazzas and other parents are also meeting with federal legislators about enacting anti-hazing laws that require colleges and universities to report hazing incidents in their annual security reports and to increase education efforts to prevent hazing [see H.R. 2926, the Report and Educate About Campus Hazing (REACH) Act].

In addition to lobbying for anti-hazing legislation, the coalition plans to create an online anti-hazing education program and to design a prevention curriculum for younger students about hazing and bullying. The North-American Interfraternity Conference also voted to ban hard alcohol at its more than 6,100 chapters and their events, except when it is sold by a licensed third party. The conference represents over 80 percent of fraternities that must implement this new policy by September 1, 2019. Alcohol with less than 15 percent alcohol by volume will, however, still be allowed. Their coalition with Greek organizations has allowed Jim and Evelyn Piazza and other parents to speak directly to fraternity and sorority members. They don’t lecture, said Evelyn Piazza. They tell their stories. “We brought them into our world . . . If they can feel it, they will remember it.” Jim Piazza told them he didn’t care what they did in the past: “All I care about is [that] you make a difference going forward.”