Starting this week, about 20 million students will be arriving on college campuses for the fall semester, and while classrooms fill up, fraternities, sports teams and clubs of all kinds will open their rolls to new students and, inevitably, to initiation rites that can include hazing. Not just embarrassing or humiliating pranks, but physical abuse and serious physical peril, even death.
According to a 2008 study by two professors at the University of Maine, more than half of college students involved with student organizations experience hazing, which often involves “alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep- deprivation, and sex acts.”
Forty-four states have laws against hazing. Some are as tough as statutes on assault or manslaughter, whose language and penalties they resemble. But many others amount to low-level charges that experts say fail to rise above the level of disorderly conduct. Some are merely admonitions that result only in fines, others leave it to the discretion of the school.
“They are basically a symbolic gesture,” said Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College in Indiana who has been tracking hazing deaths in the United States for over 30 years.
For example, Arizona’s anti-hazing laws, adopted in 2001, require all public education institutions to enforce a hazing-prevention policy that includes a statement prohibiting hazing. The policy states that every institution must print the prevention policy in all student handbooks to be distributed to students and parents.
However, there are no penalties defined for those who initiate hazing.
Florida, on the other hand, enacted much tougher anti-hazing laws in 2005. A person charged under the hazing statutes could face a third-degree felony if the crime ends in serious injury or death. A third degree felony in Florida carries a prison sentence of up to five years.
A person could also face a first degree misdemeanor in Florida for an act of hazing that creates risk of serious injury or death. This carries a maximum of one year in prison.
The first anti-hazing law in the United States was passed in New York, in 1894. This was a response to an incident at Cornell University in which students released chlorine gas into the kitchen and dining room at the freshman annual banquet. A staff member died, while others were injured. In the half century after 1894, 25 states passed anti-hazing laws.
Since 2008 high-profile incidents have raised the attention of hazing across the country.
In 2013 Chun Deng, a freshman at Baruch College in Manhattan, died at a retreat in Pennsylvania during what authorities said was a hazing ritual of Phi Delta Psi fraternity.
Deng died after running across a frozen yard blindfolded and wearing a backpack laden with pounds of sand, all while being beaten repeatedly by members of the fraternity, according to prosecutors.
Five members of the fraternity were charged with murder and are awaiting trial, according to the district attorney’s office. All five pleaded not guilty.
In 2014, Brandon Chamberlin, then a law student at Emory University in Atlanta, researched national hazing laws for an article in the school’s law review and concluded that they were often weak and ineffectual, as well as misguided.
Chamberlin acknowledged that hazing was widespread and has been so for centuries, citing cases in Europe and the United States. He also acknowledged that hazing was unlikely to disappear, because it is perpetually attractive as a secret ritual ordeal intended to bind initiates to the common values of an organization in which membership, as they see it, enhances their self-worth.
But because many hazing laws did little more than duplicate existing misdemeanor or felony statutes, Chamberlin called for a new approach, one that would establish criminal liability for members of a group who did nothing to help assure the welfare of an initiate who might be seriously hurt or put in danger by hazing rites.
“Legislatures feel that they have to do something about it, so a lot of it is just expressing condemnation of the actions,” said Chamberlin, who is now a law clerk for a federal judge in Manhattan. “When people are seriously injured or killed there’s a rush to do something, but outside of that not much happens.”