Despite the prevalence of anti-hazing laws and school hazing policies, hazing still persists on college campuses across the country. As news reports continue to circulate with new details about hazing allegations at Northwestern University (and lawsuits continue to mount), it has become apparent that hazing allegations are not limited to Greek organizations or athletic teams. Hazing crosses gender, age, and organizational lines. Hazing statistics indicate that 55% of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing. Because hazing jeopardizes the health and safety of students, it’s essential that students understand what constitutes hazing, how to report hazing, and how to handle accusations of being involved in hazing.
According to the organization Stop Hazing, hazing is any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate. In Ohio, the legal definition of hazing is:
“Doing any act or coercing another . . . to do any act of initiation into any student or other organization . . . that causes or creates a substantial risk of causing mental or physical harm to any person, including coercing another to consume alcohol or a drug of abuse.”
Ohio hazing legislation classifies acts of hazing as a second-degree misdemeanor and acts of hazing that include coerced consumption of alcohol or drugs or abuse that result in serious physical harm as a felony of the third degree. Hazing can also subject individuals and organizations to civil liability.
School Policies and Consequences
Even if hazing does not result in legal proceedings, schools have anti-hazing policies that can lead to student conduct charges for suspected violations. Both students and student organizations can be found in violation of hazing policies. Examples of hazing include forced calisthenics, forced consumption of any food or liquor, and forced public stunts, to name a few.
Misconceptions and Responsibilities
One of the most common misperceptions of hazing is that if someone agrees to participate in an activity, it can’t be considered hazing. This is simply not always the case. In fact, Ohio law specifically recognizes that consent of a victim doesn’t give rise to a defense. Another frequent justification for hazing is that the act in question is a bonding ritual for the organization. Just like traditions are created, traditions can be broken.
Involvement and Liability
Students should be mindful that they can be involved in student conduct proceedings even if they had no direct participation in the hazing rituals. We have worked on matters where those students who served in organization leadership roles were found responsible for hazing that took place at events those students did not even attend. For this reason, it is critically important for parents to warn students to be thoughtful about the organizations they join.
We recognize that joining a team or a Greek organization has many lifelong benefits for participants. For incoming freshmen, team membership can provide an instant home for students looking for friends and belonging. However, students must understand that it is not business as usual for campus organizations given the number of student injuries and fatalities attendant to hazing rituals, especially those rituals involving binge drinking.
Taking Action: Reporting and Legal Counsel
If a student has experienced hazing or has knowledge of hazing, the student shouldn’t feel helpless or pressured to participate in hazing activities. Likewise, it is unwise to act as a bystander or turn a blind eye to hazing. Reports can be made to campus police or student conduct offices. For those students concerned about revealing their identities, most schools provide some means of reporting anonymously through hotlines or online form submissions.
When Should You Retain Counsel?
Parents should retain counsel if their student receives a disciplinary notice informing the student that either the student and/or the organization is being investigated for hazing violations. Given the risk of criminal prosecution, students need to consult with counsel before providing any statements to either law enforcement (including campus police) or to investigators. To that end, we even caution to seek counsel before statements are provided internally to group leadership.