Uptick in Hazing-Related Incidents Provides Sobering Reminder of Potential Claims Against Colleges and Universities

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP
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Across the United States there has been a recent surge of injuries — and deaths — resulting from hazing and initiation rites led by student organizations.  These tragic events have produced lawsuits and investigations into the enforcement of policies at some colleges and universities.  Here are a few recent examples:

  •  Just weeks ago, a lawsuit was filed by the family of a student whose death was attributed to an overdose of painkillers.  The student had visible contusions to his head and surrounding area, which the family claims was the result of physical blows the student suffered as a fraternity pledge.  According to the family, the son of the university’s president led the hazing, which also included drug and alcohol abuse.  The family has also argued that the university’s campus police chief ordered his staff to go easy on the president’s son.  While this allegation has not yet been tested against the evidence, the family will likely point to the fact that the campus police investigated but found no evidence of a homicide as suggesting that the investigation was mishandled.
  • Police in Pennsylvania are investigating whether the recent suicide of a fraternity pledge was caused by hazing.  Police are investigating potential hazing, including drug-and-alcohol abuse in addition to physical abuse.  While criminal charges have yet to be brought, authorities have not ruled them out.
  • Earlier this year the death of a first-year student was ruled a homicide after he was repeatedly tackled while blindfolded in a frozen backyard as part of a “game.”  Members of the fraternity left the pledge unconscious and unresponsive for over an hour before taking him to the hospital.  Police are investigating whether the fraternity members — and the fraternity’s national executive vice president — attempted to conceal the circumstances related to the death.

While it is important to note that the above cases are still pending, and many facts are still left undetermined, these three cases provide a stark reminder of the perils associated with hazing — both for the individuals involved and for institutions.  Colleges and universities that do not take immediate, proactive measures to address allegations of hazing could find themselves the targets of criminal or civil investigations in addition the lawsuits seeking damages for those who were injured.  The following are some actions colleges and universities should consider in addressing hazing-related issues.

1.         Review  policies regarding hazing/initiations/rituals.  While hazing is typically linked to Greek organizations, it often extends to other student groups, including athletics teams.  Institutions should therefore examine the policies that exist for all student groups and activities and promote a policy that not only defines and prohibits hazing, but applies meaningful sanctions to those who fail to comply.  These policies should be clearly detailed and identified in the institution’s student code of conduct.  While hazing is a difficult term to define, most consider it to include physical, mental, or emotional abuse, regardless of whether the individual being hazed perceives an injury.

2.         Train student leaders on the prevention of hazing and the institution’s anti-hazing policies.  Student leaders of all organizations — regardless of size and function — should be trained regularly on issues relating to hazing.  Special attention should be given to the college or university’s applicable policies and potential sanctions.  At a minimum, student leaders should leave this training with an appreciation of the dangers associated with hazing and the knowledge that their organizations (and individual students found responsible for hazing others) will be held accountable for the injuries attributable to their respective organizations’ treatment of prospective and current members.

3.         In any investigation, ensure there is no conflict of interest, including a perceived conflict.  Colleges and universities face a credibility challenge when an  apparent conflict is perceived.  Such a conflict may arise when an investigation has at least an indirect connection with a high-ranking or well-respected member of the campus community.  While the culture at each college or university is unique, the university can protect itself by engaging a third-party investigator (including law enforcement, where appropriate) to conduct the investigation.  Doing so not only protects the integrity of the investigation at issue, but promotes a healthy campus culture of transparency and accountability.

4.         Remember that hazing might be a mask for bullying.  While the concept of hazing often connotes a student’s “rite of passage” or initiation into an organization, it can sometimes be more nefarious.  Indeed, in an October 2010 Dear Colleague Letter (“DCL”), the U.S. Department of Education noted that hazing could be used as a “label to describe” an incident of bullying.1  And when bullying is attributable to a protected class under civil rights laws, the DCL mandates that colleges and universities take immediate action to remediate the effects.  In analyzing reports of hazing, colleges and universities should be sure to evaluate whether the incident reflects bullying based on a protected class and therefore requires immediate, remedial action on the college or university’s part.  Of course, colleges should always consider whether immediate action is needed to address the effects of hazing even when those effects are not specific to a protected class under civil-rights laws.

The importance of student organizations of all shapes and sizes on campus is undisputed.  But in the wake of recent events involving hazing, colleges and universities must take steps now to prevent future tragedies on and off campus.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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