College firefighter files hazing claim
By ALISHA WYMAN
The Union Democrat (6/28/07)
A former Columbia College Fire Department trainee alleges that senior firefighters on the force poisoned his meals, forced him to eat “foul” and “excessive amounts of” foods and made him perform “excessive physical activities” as part of a hazing ritual.
Andrew Grafius,19, made the contentions in a claim he filed against Tuolumne County last month. In it, he asked for more than $10,000 in damages, including medical expenses and reimbursement for a dorm deposit he forfeited when he left the college.
He also filed a claim against the Yosemite Community College District and Columbia College.
The claims came in the wake of a Jan. 15 off-campus party at which Grafius says he was kicked, punched and forced to drink large amounts of beer. The county claim also spells out previous and ongoing harassment he says he and others experienced at the fire department.
YCCD’s board rejected the claim earlier this month.
Tuolumne County Counsel Gregory Oliver also rejected the claim. The allegations didn’t involve county employees, and the county doesn’t run the college’s firefighter program, Oliver said.
“I didn’t see where there was any liability of the County of Tuolumne,” he said.
Grafius has six months to file a lawsuit from the day the rejection was personally delivered or put in the mail. The letter notifying Grafius of the county’s rejection is dated May 24.
A Stockton resident, Grafius began working at the college’s fire department in early November of 2006 â€” “working towards fulfilling his dream of becoming a fireman,” according to the claim.
Almost as soon as he began his probationary period, Grafius experienced hazing and harassment that lasted until the Jan. 15 incident, the document says.
Other new firefighters, referred to as “Probees,” also were harassed, it says.
According to Grafius’ claim, department members involved in the hazing:
â€¢ Poisoned his food, causing him to become ill;
â€¢ Forced him to eat foul or excessive amounts of foods;
â€¢ Made him pay for and make expensive meals for the crew;
â€¢ Forced him to perform excessive physical activities as punishment;
â€¢ Tampered with his gear, filled his boots with water and sticks, and emptied the air from his respirator;
â€¢ Delivered constant verbal abuse, such as yelling or cursing;
â€¢ Forbade him from going to the bathroom while on duty.
As an example of the physical punishment forced on Grafius, the claim contends he had to swing a 10-pound sledge hammer against a stump nearly 3,000 times per shift, while others threw eggs, dirt and sticks at him and hit golf balls toward him.
“(Grafius) was told that the hazing and harassment was the normal and customary process that Probees had to go through, and that if he refused or complained, that he would suffer further retribution until he was forced to quit,” the document says.
Tuolumne County, Cal Fire-Tuolumne County Fire and-or Columbia College should have known about the abuse because others before him had gone through similar harassment, it says. Cal Fire/Tuolumne County Fire and the college run the program in partnership.
The day-to-day supervision of the station was left to Columbia College students, who participated and encouraged the hazing, it says.
Capt. Preston Birdwell, the fire department’s supervisor, was rarely at the station, the document alleges.
According to the claim, Grafius spoke with Joe Daugherty, an instructor at the college, about the hazing in late November or early December 2006, and believes Daugherty passed the report on to Dean Gary Mendenhall.
Grafius also told Birdwell, who he believes discussed the problem with Mendenhall.
Birdwell declined to comment due to the legal action.
The hazing ebbed, but didn’t stop completely, for about two weeks, the claim said. Then it rose to its previous level, according to the claim.
At the end of Grafius’ probationary period, he was told he must attend a party as “his final right right of passage,” it continues.
At that party, on Jan. 15 at a house in the Crystal Falls area, his senior colleagues forced him to drink numerous beers “shotgun” style â€” in which a hole is pierced in the bottom of a can and the beer is chugged rapidly. He also had to drink large amounts of water.
“(Grafius) realized those forcing him to drink would not relent, and fearing for his life, realized that he could not continue to drink the beer and water,” the claim says.
He was in an upstairs room when he heard others coming for him. He panicked, punched out a glass window and jumped to the ground, the document says.
Those at the party ran down to him, where they began “verbally and physically attacking” Grafius, the claim states.
He ran to a neighbor’s house for help, and a resident there called an ambulance. He was taken to Sonora Regional Medical Center, where he was treated and released.
“As the result of the conduct described herein, (Grafius) has suffered humiliation and embarrassment and has been forced to quit Station 79 and Columbia Junior College, thus compromising his education and career,” the document says.
Withdrawing from school cost him his $1,000 dorm deposit.
He is still seeking diagnosis and treatment for the injuries he suffered in the incidents the claim describes, including a herniated disc, arthritis in his back and inflammation in his shoulder, it said.
Columbia College officials declined to comment on the claim.
“We’re working with our attorney on this matter and therefore we cannot make any public comment on this situation,” college spokesman Doug Lau said.
The college’s attorney did not return calls by press time.
Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Chief Mike Noonan said he was unaware of any claim against the state fire department.
He plans to meet with Dennis Townsend, Cal Fire/Tuolumne County Fire Law Enforcement/Fire Prevention Bureau chief, Cal Fire Assistant Chief Julie Henriques, and Columbia College President Joan Smith next week about a personnel investigation Townsend conducted.
They will discuss whether any punishment within the department is warranted.
They are also talking about how to prevent similar incidents from occurring again, he said.
“I’m hoping within the next couple of weeks, we’ll be operating again out of there,” Noonan said.
The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office has conducted its own criminal investigation.
It forwarded its findings to the Tuolumne County District Attorney Donald Segerstrom, who hasn’t yet announced if he will file charges.” (end of excerpt)