by Jason L. Meriwether, Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management & Student Affairs at Indiana University Southeast
In the new book Black Haze, Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities, 2nd Edition, Ricky Jones discusses 441 cases of hazing among historically white and historically black fraternities, as well as military academies in the United States since 1838. In an online chronology of deaths among college students in the United States caused by accidents related to hazing in initiations, rituals or pledge activities, Hank Nuwer shares 183 incidents from 1838 to 2014 which includes fraternities, sororities, and other campus organizations. According to Nuwer's website there have been 75 hazing-related deaths among college students since 1995. Many of these incidents led to lawsuits against universities, individual fraternity and sorority members, chapter advisors, local chapters, and national organizations. Student conduct professionals can glean many lessons from such court cases and the resulting court decisions.
As an example, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, columnist Katherine Mangan discusses issues of insurance among fraternities, trends in fraternity growth, and money spent to settle hazing cases by national organizations. Mangan also reviews the case of Brian Yost vs. Wabash College. The case involved injuries alleged to have been sustained by Yost while pledging Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity in 2007 as an 18 year-old freshman. The Indiana State Supreme Court ruled that both Wabash College and Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity’s national office had no liability for injuries sustained by Yost, who was allegedly hazed in an on-campus fraternity house, which was rented by the local chapter. The court’s ruling explains that the university policy prohibiting hazing is intended to elicit good behavior from students, and that the university had educated the campus about the policy. This case also included issues of premises liability, duty of care, and responsibility for the behavior of individual fraternity members. However, Wabash College was not found responsible for the injuries sustained by Brian Yost.
Another case helpful for Student Conduct Officers and Greek Life Advisors is Lloyd v. Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., which sets an even more concise standard for universities to administer anti-hazing policies. In this case, a student at Cornell University was victim to severe beatings and tortuous psychological and physical abuse. The university was sued for negligent supervision, premises liability, and breach of implied contract to protect the student. In this case, the lawsuit against the University was dismissed. There are five points in this case that are helpful to Student Conduct Officers and Greek Life Advisors:
- The University had published an anti-hazing policy that was clear and prohibitive;
- The University had educated their campus and fraternities and sororities by publishing their policy and advertising the dangers associated with hazing;
- The court determined there was no special relationship or implied contract between the university and student, specifically noting that the university had not promised to protect any individual student;
- Based on prior behavior of the organization, the University did not have any reasonable evidence to foresee that hazing rituals were taking place; and
- Once the university student affairs and conduct officers were made aware of hazing within the fraternity, they acted quickly and in accordance with their own policy in enacting disciplinary procedures to take action against students who had violated the policy.
On our campuses, it is important not to rely on simply publishing policies that prohibit hazing as an effective education tool. We must be proactive and visible in our steps to educate students about those policies and the risks associated with participating in hazing rituals. Here are a few helpful tips:
- Leveraging Digital Education. In a 2015 Socialnoics.net blog post titled #Hazing Prevention: A New Digital Discussion, I shared best practice resources from universities that leverage social media and other digital tools to educate their students about the risks and dangers of hazing. Among this content is an interactive online course offered by hazingprevention.org, which can be adapted by campuses for new and returning students. This and other digital education options may be helpful ways to educate your campus community;
- Mandatory Education. Some campuses can benefit from mandatory anti-hazing trainings for all current or aspiring fraternity and sorority members. Requiring a book on the risks and dangers of hazing to serve as a common reader can also be a valuable tool. Either option, which should include participation of advisors, demonstrates commitment to sharing additional educative information to students;
- Enhanced New Member Requirements. On my campus and others, fraternities and sororities are required to review and discuss state laws, universities policies, and organizational policies prohibiting hazing with a campus official. Organizations who do not comply with such standards could be denied the privilege to add new members or expelled from campus. University officials can require students sign documentation acknowledging receipt of such policy information, or even provide students with a certificate of completion for a more robust educative session; and
- Addressing Reasonable Foresight. We must be certain to take campus-wide and organizational history of hazing behavior into consideration before allowing chapters to engage in rush or membership intake. This may mean setting additional standards for education, denying new membership privileges for a certain period of time, setting stricter standards for national organization or graduate chapter involvement in preventative education sessions, or permanently revoking the option to add new members.
In summary, the legal precedents referred to above, make it clear that our responsibility is to meaningfully and actively educate our students about prohibitive university policies, applicable laws, and the risks and dangers of hazing. We must also act expediently within the parameters of institutional policy and legal standards when hazing allegations are raised. Ahead of policy violations, implementing education strategies based on the standards and recommendations above can potentially help decrease institutional and personal liability in the face of a hazing allegation. Most importantly, our education initiatives can help spread information that may reduce the risk of harm coming to our most important campus commodity, our students.
Jason L. Meriwether is the Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management & Student Affairs at Indiana University Southeast, which was named one of the 15 "Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs" by Diverse Issues in Higher Education in 2015. In 2014, Jason was selected to Louisville Business First’s Top Forty Under 40 and as one of Business First’s 20 People to Know in Education and Workforce Development. Jason has presented at numerous national and regional conferences on topics such as legal issues & liability, retention & persistence, and hazing prevention. In addition to conducting webinars on hazing liability for Studentaffairs.com and HigherEdHero, Jason’s national presentations on legal issues related to hazing have been the subject of cover stories in the Student Affairs Today Newsletter and in College Athletics and the Law. Jason has also been a guest on #HigherEdLive to discuss hazing in fraternities and sororities and has written about hazing prevention in his monthly column for Socialnomics.net. Jason is also a contributing author of What Happens on Campus Stays on YouTube, published in 2015. Jason is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Educational Administration at Indiana State University, and is writing a dissertation titled Impact of Attitudes Toward High-Risk Hazing Rituals Among First-Time College Freshmen. You can learn more about Jason by visiting www.jasonlmeriwether.com, connecting on LinkedIn at JasonLMeriwether, or following him on Twitter @JLMeriwether06.