College is a time of excitement for Ohio’s students, and for many of them, something they’ve spent years dreaming about and working hard for. While many alumni may have a story or three about a time when they made a questionable decision in school, the presence of hazing on a college campus – or any campus – can lead to far more dire ramifications than a simple story told later in life.
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When Stone Foltz died after a hazing incident at Bowling Green University last year, it came as a shock to many people–not just because of the horrific circumstances of his death, but because many saw hazing as a relic of the past. It’s true that universities and national fraternities have taken hazing more seriously in recent years, and that many fraternities and other organizations have abandoned the practice or shifted to a more ceremonial type of hazing that doesn’t put pledges at risk.
In reality, though, the practice never fully died out. In 2020, no hazing deaths were reported for the first time in more than 60 years. But, even that turned out to be overly optimistic: in 2022, the parents of Gracie Dimit filed a lawsuit against Emory & Henry College in connection with their daughter’s 2020 death during a sorority ritual.
Ohio law has long offered a private cause of action for hazing-related injury and other damages. A bill to increase the criminal penalties for hazing and impose criminal liability on administrators and others who turned a blind eye to hazing was proposed in 2018, after 18-year-old Collin Wiant died after a hazing incident at Ohio University. But, it took another death–Stone Foltz’s in 2021–for a version of that bill to finally become law.
What is Hazing?
Ohio law defines “hazing” as:
“…doing any act or coercing another, including the victim, to do any act of initiation into any student or other organization or any act to continue or reinstate membership in or affiliation with 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 Revised Code Section 2903.31
This definition applies to both the criminal statute described below and the civil cause of action of hazing-related damages.
While hazing is often associated with college fraternities and similar organizations, hazing also happens at the high school level and in other settings. One study found that hazing most commonly occurred in:
- Varsity athletic teams
- Social fraternities and sororities
- Club sports organizations
- Performing arts organizations
- Service fraternities and sororities
- Intramural teams
- Recreational clubs
- Academic clubs
- Honor societies
One Florida college had two members of the marching band suffer kidney damage from paddling before a drum major eventually died of hemorrhagic shock after being forced to run the length of a bus repeatedly while other members of the band hit and kicked him.
How Common is Hazing?
Data presented by Stetson University indicates that about 1.5 million high school students experience hazing each year, and 55% of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing. There have been more than 50 known hazing deaths in the United States since 2000.
Hazing is a Crime in Ohio
Hazing was already a crime in Ohio, but the new law (Collin’s Law: The Ohio Anti-Hazing Act) significantly strengthened the law. Some of the key changes include:
- Increasing the crime of hazing from a misdemeanor of the fourth degree to a misdemeanor of the second degree, increasing the possible jail sentence from 30 days to 90 days,
- Elevating the crime to a felony carrying a possible sentence of up to three years in prison if the hazing involved coerced consumption of drugs or alcohol resulting in serious physical harm to the victim,
- Expanding the list of employees, volunteers and others associated with a school who could be held criminally liable for recklessly permitting hazing,
- Making it a felony for administrators, employees, faculty, alumnus, organizational volunteers and others in similar roles to “recklessly permit” hazing involving the forced consumption of drugs or alcohol resulting in serious physical harm to the victim, and
- Imposing criminal liability on administrators, employees and others for failing to report hazing
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The statute also requires institutions to develop anti-hazing policies, including methods of enforcement and appropriate penalties. Depending on the circumstances, other criminal charges may also arise out of a hazing incident. In the Stone Foltz case, some fraternity members were charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, and tampering with evidence.
Hazing Lawsuits in Ohio
The Ohio statute allowing those injured in hazing incidents to sue for damages has been in effect for decades. The law provides that anyone who has been subjected to hazing can file a civil lawsuit for “injury or damages, including mental and physical pain and suffering.” These claims may be filed against:
- Anyone who participated in the hazing
- Any organization whose local or national directors, trustees, or officers authorized, requested, commanded, or tolerated the hazing
- Any local or national diretor, trustee, or officer of the organization who authorized, requested, commanded, or tolerated the hazing
If the hazing involves students in a primary, secondary, or post-secondary school, university, college, or other educational institution–as most hazing does–the hazing victim may also have a cause of action against:
- Any administrator, employee, or faculty member of the school, university, college or other educational institution who:
- knew or reasonably should have known of the hazing, and
- did not make reasonable attempts to prevent it
- The school, university, college, or other educational institution
Two special provisions favor the hazing victim. First, the Ohio statute creating civil liability for hazing specifically provides that a school, college, university, or other institution may be held liable based on the actions of its employees (including faculty and administrators) even if the institution is a governmental entity that would otherwise be immune from liability under Ohio law. And, defendants in a civil hazing case are barred from raising the injured person’s consent or assumption of the risk as a defense.
Help for Ohio Hazing Victims
Despite the deaths and serious injuries that have prompted increased criminal penalties, enhanced responsibility for organizations and institutions, and an increase in anti-hazing policies and enforcement at colleges and universities in Ohio and around the country, hazing continues. While the stories that make the news typically revolve around the handful of fatalities each year, hazing can cause serious non-fatal injury and psychological harm.
Hazing victims have sustained brain damage, organ damage, third-degree burns, and other serious injuries. One victim in a high-profile Penn State hazing case was hospitalized for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Hazing may be presented as fun and games or a rite of passage by the organization inflicting it, but the consequences can be serious–even if the victim doesn’t sustain permanent or fatal injuries. A study of students who had been hazed found that 71% had been negatively impacted after the incident in a variety of ways, including:
- getting into fights
- fighting with parents
- doing poorly in school
- hurting other people
- having difficulty eating, sleeping, or concentrating
- feeling angry, confused, embarrassed, or guilty
If you’re a parent, talk to your teens and college-bound children about the risks of hazing. If you’re a college student, athlete, or someone else who may be subjected to hazing, don’t abandon your judgment to gain acceptance. That decision could be deadly.
If you’ve already been the victim of hazing and suffered physical and/or psychological injury, learn more about your rights. The attorneys at Dyer, Garofalo, Mann & Schultz have extensive experience helping Ohio injury victims secure the compensation they deserve. You can schedule a free consultation right now by calling 937-222-2222.