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Are There Laws Against Hazing?

Greek life is a big part of university culture across the United States, giving students a sense of belonging and identity when they step away from their homes for the first time in their lives. But recent incidents of dangerous levels of alcohol abuse, combined with traditionally infamous hazing rituals, have thrust fraternities and sororities into a glaring spotlight of law and crime. There are laws against hazing with alcohol, but how and where those laws are enforced is a complicated question.

A History of Hazing

As a ritual, hazing has existed well before it became a part of Greek life. Various social groups, organizations, and even military units and gangs have subjected newcomers to physical and mental assaults as a bonding ritual, to build solidarity within the group. Psychologists and anthropologists have researched different elements of the phenomenon. As far back as 1959, one study noted that people who experience “a great deal of pain and trouble to attain something tend to value it more highly, than persons who attain the same thing with a minimum of effort.” Hazing, therefore, is a way that current members of the group ensure that incoming members of the group better appreciate what it means to be part of that particular world.

An anthropologist at UC Santa Barbara explains that while hazing and bullying have some things in common, hazing is peculiar; bullying is meant to threaten and intimidate, but hazing is equal parts a welcoming ritual, and presented as a way of teaching new recruits discipline and loyalty when joining a group. Paradoxically, this is what makes potential members interested in surviving the gauntlet of abuse, if they believe they will be rewarded with a strong group and social identity (stronger than what they feel they would have if they were not in the process of initiation). For both the group and the newcomer, the abuse is justified.

Researchers have suggested that hazing produces stronger connection to the group’s leadership and core. Scientific Reports notes that even painful and negative experiences can foster pro-group behavior, citing the example of students at a Brazilian jiu jitsu school; even after been whipped by belts, the students were more likely to donate their time and energy to the club.

Is Hazing Legal?

In Greek life, hazing has long been a rite of passage that has ranged from merely awkward to socially embarrassing, but as far back as 2010, ABC News noted that  “sorority hazing [has become] increasingly violent and disturbing,” with experts using terms like “pure emotional blackmail” to describe what new members are put through as they try to find a brotherhood or sisterhood on a new campus. An author who spent a year undercover with four sorority girls wrote that one pledge class was forced to drink vodka if they got trivia questions wrong. One student described being made to “chug alcoholic punch” while simultaneously being forced to drink numerous vodka shots.

For reasons like this, law enforcement and the judicial system take a very dim view of hazing. A legal blog explains that hazing (covering physical harm, mental harm, and forcing students to drink against their will) is against the law, “no ifs, ands or buts.” Many schools have implemented policies against hazing, offering protections for students who report on hazing activity. Penalties can be levied against individual Greek members, and their respective sororities or fraternities, if hazing is proven.

Outside of the campus, a number of states have their own laws that prohibit hazing, but definitions of what constitutes “hazing” vary across borders. In Alabama, for example, hazing is identified as any action that intentionally or recklessly puts the physical and mental health of a student in danger. New York, on the other hand, does not mention psychological abuse as part of its anti-hazing laws, but specifically prohibits physical abuse as part of an initiation ritual. A small number of states do not have distinct anti-hazing laws on their books, but instead use pre-existing criminal battery or manslaughter statutes to discourage the practice. In general, prosecutors tend to go after hazing cases only when a student is badly hurt or killed; in all other cases, the matter is left in the hands of the university administrators.

Some legal basics apply. If the victim is physically hurt as a result of the hazing, felony charges may be filed. If there are no physical injuries, the crime is usually a misdemeanor. The more severe the student’s injuries, the greater the sentences sought by prosecutors. People who witness hazing are legally obligated to report the crime to authorities; failure to do so can result in charges being pressed on the grounds of criminal liability.

Greek clubs themselves have adopted a notably less forgiving position on hazing; the Fraternal Information and Programming Group, which specializes in risk management guidelines for fraternities and sororities, advises local chapters to examine their initiation rites to minimize the risk of hazing. This can mean filtering out activities that center around physical abuse, but also something like the “wearing of public apparel which is conspicuous and not normally in good taste,” and even evaluating if alcohol is involved in newcomer rituals.

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Alcohol on Campus

Alcohol occupies a complicated place in campus life. For many students, drinking represents crossing the threshold between adolescence with parents, and adulthood with peers and potential romantic or sexual partners. In 2013, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that three out of every five college students drank alcohol, and 39 percent of students under the age of 22 engaged in binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a two hours) in the month before they were surveyed.

As long ago as 1993, a social psychologist at the Harvard University School of Public Health surveyed 17,000 students across 140 colleges, and found that 44 percent of all students engaged in binge drinking; to a large extent, many identified the culture of excessive drinking as the primary driver behind the practice.

Drinking beyond moderation is also a characteristic of normal brain development among people in their early 20s. Until the mid-20s, the frontal lobe of a human brain (which regulates decision-making and impulse judgement) is still forming and growing; it is why teenagers do risky and dangerous things, and it is why college students will also do similarly risky and dangerous things. While (most) teenagers have the advantage of still living with their parents, college students are surrounded by their drinking peers around the clock. The temptation to keep drinking, even with hangovers and the obligations of academic work looming, while still coping with being away from home, discovering personal identity, and bonding with classmates (and Greek brothers and sisters), puts many students in a position where alcohol is the default catalyst for making college life work.

On average, alcohol poisoning brought about by binge drinking is responsible for the deaths of 1,825 college students every year, but nearly every public college and university opts against enforcing laws that restrict the flow of alcohol on their campuses. In “Why Colleges Haven’t Stopped Binge Drinking,” The New York Times notes that there is such a universal expectation of drinking on campus, that students have protested against school administration when measures are introduced to regulate on-campus drinking.

This has left a majority of schools with no option but to insist that their hands are tied when it comes to alcohol abuse on campus. The only exceptions are if the abuse leads to personal or property damage, or if alcohol is implicated in hazing rituals. Even then, writes the Times, any measures taken by the school are unlikely to have a long-term impact on drinking habits and culture as campus life moves on after the incident.

Enforcing the Unenforceable

Currently, according to the Times, less than half of America’s colleges actually enforce their alcohol policies in dormitories and Greek houses. This lends the impression, however inaccurate, that using alcohol in hazing rituals is permissible (even if publicly discouraged). Combined with the prevalence of drinking on campus, as well as new students desperate to fit in and find a community, the only time that university administration feels compelled (and safe) to step in is when something goes disastrously wrong.

Even when authorities intervene, there is concern among some anti-hazing advocates that the guilty parties receive relatively mild sentences. When a Radford University sophomore died of alcohol poisoning in October 2010, seven of his fraternity brothers were charged with hazing and supplying alcohol to an underage individual; one defendant served two months in prison while the other six avoided jail time through plea deals with the state. At California Polytechnic State University, Carson Starkey was made to guzzle alcohol as part of his initiation; when he passed out, his Greek brothers did not take him to hospital. Starkey died of alcohol poisoning; one student received a jail sentence of 45 days, another of 120 days.

The Gross Misuse of Alcohol and Hazing

When the law comes down against fraternity members who use alcohol in hazing rituals, it makes big news. In 2017, USA Today reported on eight members of the Beta Theta Pi house at Pennsylvania State University being charged with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault related to the death of Tim Piazza, a sophomore who died “after consuming massive amounts of alcohol during a hazing ritual and then falling down a flight of stairs, then falling again, repeatedly throughout the night” on bid acceptance night The cause of death was irreversible spleen and brain stem damage. Piazza also suffered a collapsed lung. Nobody called the police until 12 hours after he sustained his injuries. Eighteen men, all members of the fraternity, were charged with crimes that included hazing, giving alcohol to minors, and tampering with evidence. The fraternity itself was also hit with a total of 147 criminal charges. During testimony, one member said that the purpose of the initiation was “to get pledges drunk in a very short amount of time,” consuming as many as five drinks in just two minutes.

Highlighting the extent of the problem, Beta Theta Pi was a “dry fraternity,” but the grand jury convened for the case uncovered evidence that members within the fraternity had a “slush fund” they used to buy alcohol. For the party that eventually killed Piazza, members had bought over $1,000 in vodka, beer, wine, and a potent malt beverage.

There are 81 fraternities and sororities at Pennsylvania State University, and around 17 percent of all students at the school are members of a Greek house. Penn State’s Vice President for Student Affairs said that prior to Piazza’s death, there was no reason to suspect Beta Theta Pi of any misconduct; it won two “chapter of the year” titles since 2010, and was due to be similarly honored in 2017. From the outside, it was an “exemplary” fraternity, but “the very worst outcome occurred there [...] because of the gross misuse of alcohol and hazing.”