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Frats and Figures: Has Hazing Conquered the American Law?

Kira Small

Edited by Casey McKee, Jia Lin, and Vedanth Ramabhadran


At 10:48 AM on February 3, 2017, nurses rushed to bring Tim Piazza to the Penn State Medical Center [1]. Several hours prior, the inebriated nineteen-year-old had passed out and fallen down the stairs of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at Penn State University. Other members—including Penn State’s head football coach—had ignored suggestions to call 911, leaving Piazza to wake up, stagger around, and hit his head several more times. When chapter leaders finally decided to call an ambulance, Piazza’s skin had turned yellow, a sign of class IV hemorrhagic shock. There was nothing for the Medical Center to do. 

Death by fraternity hazing is as tragic as it is common. Despite the fact that forty-four states have anti-hazing laws, at least 73 percent of students in Greek life have been hazed [2], amounting to at least one death per year between 1959 and 2021 [3]. The University of Texas at Austin alone has seen eight deaths by hazing since it was founded. As Professor Jonathan Zimmerman states, “Hazing is illegal in almost every state, and nobody gives a sh*t... Just because you ban it doesn't mean it goes away” [4]. Despite decades of preventable deaths, hazing receives “a blind eye and a smirk” from colleges, companies, and Congress alike [5], leaving America to wonder how—and if—the law can ever save students.

It’s easy to blame universities whenever cases like Piazza’s appear in the news, but while most higher education institutions can take stronger steps to protect their students, direct liability is difficult to prove. Beginning in the seventies, American colleges experienced fewer and fewer in loco parentis (in the place of the parent) obligations [6]. In the case of Bradshaw v. Rawlings (1979), the Supreme Court summarized a nationwide sentiment that “the modern American college is not an insurer of the safety of its students…[who are] now regarded as adults” [7]. In 1986, the Delaware Superior Court excused universities for harm done by third parties [8], and other states have followed suit [9]. In fact, colleges are not even expected to keep accurate records of hazing violations. While the Clery Act federally mandates that higher education institutions report annual crime statistics [10], including everything from murder to stalking to alcohol possession, it cannot mandate universities to publicize hazing statistics to applicants, current students, or government bodies because it’s not a crime nationwide [11]. On the contrary, as in loco parentis fades in national memory, universities are incentivized not to track, report, or discourage hazing. Monitoring the problem can increase liability, as in the case of Furek v. University of Delaware (1991) [12]. When student and on-campus resident Jeffrey Furek sustained chemical burns at a Sigma Phi Epsilon event, he sued the school by claiming that as both a learning institution and a landlord, it should have warned him about the prevalence of fraternity hazing. The Delaware Superior Court ruled in his favor, stating that “where there is direct university involvement in, and knowledge of, certain dangerous practices of its students, the university cannot abandon its residual duty of control.” By passing out leaflets warning against fraternity violence—thus establishing awareness of its existence—the University of Delaware shot itself in the foot. The court’s decision declared an all-or-nothing bind for Delaware’s universities: they must either acknowledge hazing and take every expensive, time-consuming, and dubiously efficacious step to prevent it, or ignore hazing completely and stick to punishing third parties retroactively. Many schools gladly chose the latter. Other states have executed different approaches to institutional liability [13]. The parents of Maxwell Gruver, a student who died during a hazing event, used Title IX to sue Louisiana State University in 2019 [14]. They reasoned that LSU’s lack of regard for the lives of men in Greek life versus women constituted discrimination against male students, and a federal court agreed. This ruling alerted universities nationwide to reevaluate how they addressed complaints from sororities and fraternities [15]. While this outcome is promising, the fact that it took the death of a student for LSU to address discrepancies in the pledge/rush process indicates a troubling detachment from student safety. University neglect, however, pales in comparison to that of fraternities.

Fraternal organizations—otherwise known as nationals—take every opportunity to shove local chapters and individuals under the bus when initiations go awry. Escaping responsibility wasn’t always easy; cases like United States v. Gold (1984) established that crimes “may be imputed to the corporation, even if they are forbidden and against corporate policy or express instructions [16][17]. The Pennsylvania Superior Court clarified in Commonwealth v. Penn Valley Resorts (1985) that the mere existence of a “principal/agency relationship” would ensure corporate liability for crimes committed by “high managerial agents [18],” including chapter presidents, pledge educators, and pledge assistants in the case of fraternities [19], and Illinois followed suit in Morris v. Ameritech (2003) [20]. Marshall v. University of Delaware (1986) [21], Ballou v. Sigma Nu (1986) [22], and Kenner v. Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity (2002) [23] all found fraternities liable for injury caused by a violation of purported “duty of care” to their members. According to a growing body of law, nominally prohibiting hazing was not enough to protect a fraternity from legal action. 

In an effort to dodge this mounting tide of liability, nationals wiped “duty of care” protocols from websites and manuals and stripped local chapters of individual insurance [24],[25]. This effectively gave them the same protection as universities; nationals don’t have to take accountability for hazing if they can pretend to be unaware of its existence. What’s more, only approximately half of members’ dues go towards funding local chapters. The other half goes straight to nationals, significantly bolstering their own legal defenses while hanging individuals out to dry [26]. According to a former executive CEO of Delta Kappa Epsilon, “The kids are paying all the insurance money, the entire premiums for the nationals, and [the kids are] not covered…they are absolutely paying for nothing” [27]. A memo leaked in 2012 at the Fraternity Executive Association’s meeting told fraternities that, similar to universities, “more involvement equals more potential liability” and that “prior knowledge of improper acts is fatal” [28]. Members who call 911 during a hazing incident or offer personal accounts to investigators risk being individually prosecuted, saddled with the recklessness of an entire organization. 

Such was the case in Commonwealth v. Pi Delta Psi (2019) [29], which charged the Pi Delta Psi fraternity at Baruch College with the death of freshman Michael Deng. Although the Pennsylvania Superior Court found Pi Delta Psi criminally responsible, they overturned a decision to ban the fraternity from Pennsylvania for ten years. The opinion stated that “while [Pi Delta Psi’s] negligent management may have fostered a corporate culture that permitted or even encouraged wanton behavior by student members, the corporation did not tackle or physically attack anyone. It has no body with which to do so.” Instead, thirty-seven students were charged in Deng’s death (more than any other hazing case in history), and four were sentenced to jail time [30]. Pi Delta Psi was left relatively unscathed. The hundred-thousand-dollar fine was a manageable blow for an organization so flush with dues [31], and its corporate infrastructure wasn’t challenged at all. To quote Jim Piazza regarding his own son’s death [32], nationals “turn a blind eye to what’s going on in these fraternities, and they really need to be more accountable to what's happening at the local chapter.” In an ideal world, fraternal organizations wouldn’t need a legal incentive to protect the physical well-being of pledges. In the meantime, however, state-by-state discrepancies prevent nationals from standardizing pledge codes to comply with the law. 

Despite a mounting death toll, the United States has blocked every attempt to establish federal hazing regulations, leaving students at the mercy of state legislatures. Six states have no laws preventing hazing at all [33]. The forty-four that do carry vastly different sentences, from small fines to years in prison, with most classifying hazing only as a misdemeanor [34]. “Severe injury or death” elevates hazing to a felony in only fifteen states [35]. These lighter punishments reflect a common misconception that pledges can consent to being hazed, a legally and scientifically bunk theory. In 1979, the Supreme Court of Nevada reaffirmed that “[i]f the plaintiff is known to be incapable of giving consent because of…intoxication…even his active manifestation of consent will not protect the defendant.”—an especially important point considering the prevalence of alcohol in hazing rituals [36]. However, the sheer social coercion employed in most pledge processes is enough to nullify consent. As an Illinois district court stated in Quinn v. Sigma Rho Chapter of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity (1987) [37], “The social pressure that exists once a college or university student has pledged…is so great that…[it] places him or her in a position of acting in a coerced manner.” A Missouri court confirmed this logic in Nisbet v. Butcher (1997) [38]. As the consent clause recommended by StopHazing.org asserts [39], “an individual's willingness to participate in potentially hazardous actions does not protect those involved from hazing charges.” Despite a wealth of evidence supporting this clause, only seventeen include it in their anti-hazing legislation, suggesting a need for federal intervention. Similarly, national laws should hold fraternal organizations to a strict liability standard for severe hazing [40]. This standard lessens the importance of intent when sentencing a defendant and seems an obvious choice for a crime whose long-held purpose is to degrade, humiliate, and injure. Strict liability also holds organizations responsible even if their leaders were ignorant of the crime in question, meaning that nationals would have to actively enforce anti-hazing policies  in order to avoid blame if they were flouted. Additionally, federal regulation would add hazing to the Clery Act, ensuring that students could receive accurate information about on-campus violations. If Congress ever chooses to set aside its personal investments in Greek life [41], criminalizing severe and recurrent hazing as a felony under a standard of strict liability will save lives.

In 2019, Governor Phil Murphy signed off on “Piazza’s Law,” [42] which increased hazing from a fourth-degree to a third-degree crime if it results in serious bodily harm or death. While certainly a step in the right direction for New Jersey, the update is nowhere near the level of regulation necessary to ensure compliance. Piazza’s Law, Sam’s Law [43], Collin’s Law [44], the Max Gruver Act [45]—these legislative titles won’t bring back the people they honor. But until America proactively and federally confronts hazing, they remain the closest thing to justice that students can expect.

 

[1]Caitlin Flanagan, Death at a Penn State Fraternity, The Atlantic, 15 Nov. 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/11/a-death-at-penn-state/540657/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[2]Elizabeth Allan, and Mary Madden. Hazing in View: College Students at Risk Initial Findings from the National Study of Student Hazing. 2008. https://stophazing.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/hazing_in_view_study.pdf. (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[3]U.S. Hazing Deaths Part Two: 2000-2024 – Hank Nuwer Unofficial Hazing Clearinghouse, https://www.hanknuwer.com/hazing-destroying-young-lives/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[4]Ben Kesslen, If student deaths won’t stop fraternity hazing, what will?, NBC News, 12 Mar. 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/if-student-deaths-won-t-stop-fraternity-hazing-what-will-n1260750 (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[5]Mike Deak, Murphy Signs Timothy J. Piazza’s Law Strengthening Penalties for Hazing, Courier News 24 Aug. 2021, https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/politics/new-jersey/2021/08/24/gov-murphy-signs-timothy-j-piazzas-law-strengthening-penalties-hazing/5574135001/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[6]Gregory E. Rutledge, Hell Night Hath No Fury Like a Pledge Scorned and Injured: Hazing Litigation in U.S. Colleges and Universities, Journal of College and University Law, vol. 25, no. 2, Fall 1998, pp. 361-398. HeinOnline, https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.journals/jcolunly25&i=388. (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[7]Bradshaw v. Rawlings, 612 F.2d 135 (3d Cir. 1979). 

[8]Marilyn Aboussie‌, Waddill IV v. Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity Lambda Tau Chapter Texas Tech University, Findlaw, 2024, caselaw.findlaw.com/court/tx-court-of-appeals/1273603.html. (last visited 22 Feb. 2024).

[9]Rabel v. Illinois Wesleyan University, 161 Ill. App. 3d 348, 514 N.E.2d 552 (Ill. App. Ct. 1987).

[10]The Clery Act. https://www.clerycenter.org/the-clery-act. (last visited Feb 22 2024).

[11]Andrew Lawrence, “Nobody Called 911”: What Can Be Done to Change the Culture of Hazing at US Colleges? The Guardian 23 Jun. 2022, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jun/23/us-colleges-university-hazing-fraternities-sororities. (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[12]‌Furek v. University of Delaware, 594 A.2d 506 (Del. 1991).

[13]Gregory S. Parks and Elizabeth Grindell, The Litigation Landscape of Fraternity and Sorority Hazing: Criminal and Civil Liability, 99 Neb. L. Rev. 649 (2022). Available at: https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/nlr/vol99/iss3/4. (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[14]Teresa M. Biviano and Doreen S. Martin, A Federal Court Ruling in a Student Hazing Death Sets New Boundaries for Title IX Enforcement, Venable LLP, 5 Aug. 2019, https://www.venable.com/insights/publications/2019/08/a-federal-court-ruling-in-a-student-hazing-death. (last visited Feb 21 2024).

[15]Jim Newberry, After Court Decision, Could Title IX Expand to Cover Hazing?, National Law Review, 2 Aug. 2019, www.natlawreview.com/article/after-court-decision-could-title-ix-expand-to-cover-hazing(last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[16]United States v. Gold, 743 F.2d 800 (11th Cir. 1984).

[17]‌ Justin J. Swofford, The Hazing Triangle: Reconceiving the Crime of Fraternity Hazing, 14 Aug. 2020, Journal of College and University Law, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2020, https://ssrn.com/abstract=3835565. (last visited Feb 22 2024).

[18]Commonwealth v. Penn Valley Resorts, 343 Pa. Superior Ct. 387 (1985).

[19]Timothy Burke, Guilty! A National Fraternity Convicted, Fraternal Law, vol. 152, no. Fall, Nov. 2017, https://fraternallaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Frat-Law-152-Nov-2017-Special-Edition.pdf. (last visited Feb 22 2024).

[20]Morris v. Ameritech Illinois, 337 Ill. App. 3d 40, 785 N.E.2d 62 (Ill. App. Ct. 2003)

[21]Waddill v. Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity Lambda Tau Chapter Texas Tech University, 114 S.W.3d 136 (Tex. App. 2003)

[22]Ballou v. Sigma Nu Gen. Fraternity, 291 S.C. 140, 352 S.E.2d 488 (Ct. App. 1986). 

[23]Kenner v. Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., 808 A.2d 178, 2002 Pa. Super. 269 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002). 

[24]Caitlin Flanagan, The Dark Power of Fraternities, The Atlantic, Feb. 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/03/the-dark-power-of-fraternities/357580/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[25]David Easlick, Fraternity Liability Coverage, a Giant Oxymoron, Linkedin.com, 19 May 2018, www.linkedin.com/pulse/fraternity-liability-its-upside-down-david-k-easlick/. (last visited Feb 22, 2024).

[26]Jill Riepenhoff et al., Hazed and Excused: Some National Fraternities Shift Financial Responsibility in Hazing Deaths through Self-Created Insurance System, https://www.wsfa.com (2023), https://www.wsfa.com/2023/08/21/hazed-excused-some-national-fraternities-shift-financial-responsibility-hazing-deaths-through-self-created-insurance-system/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[27]Hazed and Excused: Colleges and universities rarely expel fraternities, sororities for hazing violations, InvestigateTV (2023), https://www.investigatetv.com/2023/02/20/hazed-excused-colleges-universities-rarely-expel-fraternities-sororities-hazing-violations/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[28]Hazed and Excused: Colleges and universities rarely expel fraternities, sororities for hazing violations, InvestigateTV (2023), https://www.investigatetv.com/2023/02/20/hazed-excused-colleges-universities-rarely-expel-fraternities-sororities-hazing-violations/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[29]Commonwealth v. Pi Delta Psi, Inc., 211 A.3d 875, 2019 Pa. Super. 167 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2019).

[30]Emily Shapiro. “The Hazing Death of Baruch Fraternity Pledge Michael Deng Was “an Active Cover Up,” Prosecutor Says. ABC News, 11 Jan. 2023, abcnews.go.com/US/hazing-death-baruch-fraternity-pledge-michael-deng-active/story?id=94351156. (last visited Feb 22 2024).

[31]Emily Shapiro. “The Hazing Death of Baruch Fraternity Pledge Michael Deng Was “an Active Cover Up,” Prosecutor Says. ABC News, 11 Jan. 2023, abcnews.go.com/US/hazing-death-baruch-fraternity-pledge-michael-deng-active/story?id=94351156. (last visited Feb 22, 2024).

[32]News, ABC. “An Oath of Silence”: The Secret World of Fraternity Pledging and How It Contributes to Hazing Deaths. ABC News, 27 Oct. 2017, abcnews.go.com/US/oath-silence-secret-world-fraternity-pledging-contributes-hazing/story?id=49877076. (last visited Feb 22, 2024).

[33]Elizabeth J. Allan and Mary Madden, Hazing in View: College Students at Risk, National Study of Student Hazing, 11 Mar. 2008, https://www.stophazing.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/hazing_in_view_web1.pdf. (last visited Feb 22, 2024).

[34]‌Angela Tylock, A 50-State Summary of Hazing Laws, SUNY Student Conduct Institute, 21 Apr. 2021, https://system.suny.edu/media/suny/content-assets/documents/sci/A-50-State-Summary-of-Hazing-Laws.pdf. (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[35]Amanda Hernández, Laws on Hazing Are on the Books in Most States. They Don’t Protect Equally, USA TODAY, 13 Oct. 2023, www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2023/10/13/hazing-state-laws-differ-offer-uneven-protection-to-college-students/71076327007/. (last visited Feb 22, 2024).

[36]Davies v. Butler, 95 Nev. 763, 602 P.2d 605 (Nev. 1980). 

[37]‌Quinn v. Sigma Rho Chapter of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, 507 N.E.2d 1193, 155 Ill. App. 3d 231

[38]‌Nisbet v. Bucher, 949 S.W.2d 111 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997).

[39]States with Anti-Hazing Laws | StopHazing | Hazing Prevention Resource, stophazing.org, https://stophazing.org/policy/state-laws/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[40]Justin J. Swofford, The Hazing Triangle: Reconceiving the Crime of Fraternity Hazing 17 Aug. 2020, Journal of College and University Law, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2020, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3835565. (last visited Feb 22, 2024).

[41]Maria Konnikova. 18 U.S. Presidents Were in College Fraternities, The Atlantic, 21 Feb. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/18-us-presidents-were-in-college-fraternities/283997/. (last visited Feb 22, 2024).

[42]Office of the Governor | Governor Murphy Signs “Timothy J. Piazza’s Law,” https://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/562021/20210824b.shtml (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[43]Anderson Cooper, Anti-Hazing “Sam’s Law” Enacted in Washington - 60 Minutes - CBS News, (2022), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/anti-hazing-sams-law-washington-60-minutes-2022-04-03/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[44]Mike Wagner and Sheridan Hendrix, Collin’s Law, Aimed to Deter Hazing in Ohio, Signed by Gov. Mike DeWine. Here’s What to Know, The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/2021/07/05/collins-law-what-know-ohios-anti-hazing-act/7842126002/ (last visited Mar 17, 2024).

[45]Livia Albeck-Ripka, Parents of L.S.U. Student Who Died After Hazing Are Awarded $6.1 Million, The New York Times, Mar. 13, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/13/us/max-gruver-lsu-hazing-death-lawsuit.html (last visited Mar 17, 2024).


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