InvestigateTV – Every year, for the past six decades, at least one student has died or suffered life-altering injuries in a hazing incident.
The majority were college students pledging a fraternity.
Across the country, uncounted lawsuits, police reports, universities’ records and media accounts tell the harrowing details of initiation rituals that have left hundreds of students seriously injured, or worse.
Last year, Rutgers student Armand Runte fractured his skull and suffered serious brain injuries after drinking “life-threatening” amounts of alcohol then falling down a flight of stairs at a fraternity house, according to a lawsuit he filed in October.
In 2021, Danny Santulli was left unable to walk, talk or see after a fraternity event at the University of Missouri in which his attorney says he was required to drink, among other things, a bottle of vodka. His family has filed a lawsuit.
“You never think you’re going to be the people on TV. This happens to other people, not us,” said Evelyn Piazza, whose son died after a 2017 event at a Penn State fraternity that garnered national headlines for its shocking brutality. “And now we’re on TV.”
After surviving the drinking contest, Piazza, who was heavily intoxicated, fell down a flight of stairs and was knocked unconscious. Fraternity members moved him to a couch then largely ignored him for hours.
He later died at a hospital.
Several members of the fraternity faced criminal charges, with many ultimately convicted of minor crimes related to alcohol and hazing. Penn State banned Beta Theta Pi from campus. The Piazza family pushed for new state laws to make hazing a felony in cases of serious injury or death and to make reporting of hazing incidents transparent.
And yet five years later, others continue to follow Piazza’s tragic fate.
“Hazing, the word, is treated lightly. It really is abuse,” Mrs. Piazza said.
Seven of the nine of the fraternities involved in death cases that are named by InvestigateTV issued statements denouncing hazing. The full statements are at the bottom of the page. Delta Chi, whose chapter at Virginia Commonwealth University had a death, and Sigma Pi, whose Ohio University chapter had a death, did not respond to requests for comment.
Hazing on college campuses claims lives and injures and humiliates countless others, yet government officials fail to enact strong laws to curb the persistent problem.
InvestigateTV analyzed state hazing laws from StopHazing.org, a nonprofit that tracks legislation and advocates for change, and found a patchwork of regulation that has done little to end annual initiation rituals of physical, mental and sexual abuse.
Only 15 states make hazing a felony of its own in cases of death or serious harm. For example, if a pledge who is forced to drink at a fraternity in Kansas and later dies of alcohol poisoning, its law doesn’t expressly make hazing a felony. But in neighboring Missouri, students can be charged with a felony, which can lead to prison sentences.
Twenty-two states don’t require schools to craft anti-hazing policies, which define for students what is not acceptable behavior.
Six states don’t have any anti-hazing laws in place: Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Wyoming.
In Minnesota and Utah, the hazing law applies only to high schools.
In the wake of Maxwell Gruver’s death at LSU in 2017, Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, began pushing for a federal law to address hazing.
Gruver and other pledges had to chug 190-proof liquor when they gave wrong answers to questions about the Phi Delta Theta fraternity or could not recite the Greek alphabet, the Associated Press reported.
Gruver died from acute alcohol intoxication.
“This is effectively a public health issue,” said Cassidy, who also is a physician.
And yet Cassidy’s legislation remains untouched by Congress.
“We just need everybody concerned about the issue to join with us,” he said. “You can’t imagine what parent thinks when she sends her child off to school, that she’s going to get a phone call in the middle of the night, not about a car wreck, not even about a suicide, but about something which was so avoidable.”
A researcher tracks the deadly toll of hazing
By Hank Nuwer’s calculation, hazing has claimed at least 285 students, with the first fraternity pledge dying in 1873 at Cornell University in New York.
Huwer, a journalist and college professor, began researching the issue in 1975 after witnessing a hazing incident involving a rugby club when he was a teaching fellow in Nevada.
“I saw their initiation in a bar, and it was pouring alcohol down the throats of pledges,” he said. “They used Everclear,” which is 95-proof grain alcohol and then lit a match.
One pledge was badly burned.
“This was definitely a turning point,” he said. “Before, I thought hazing was stupid and that this time I realized how dangerous it was.”
He set out to create a database of all the victims of hazing, likely the most comprehensive accounting of the deaths, and has written five books on the issue.
Through his research, he has discovered that between 1959 and 2021, hazing has killed at least one student every year – all but six of them were college students.
Nuwer knows the name of every student who has died and can rattle off even the smallest details about these dangerous incidents that some organizations see as nothing more than bonding.
“Hazing, unfortunately, does bond people together,” he said. “It gives them a quote unquote family. They even call them big brothers, big sisters or dads, mothers.”
Big brother events, in which a member of a fraternity gives a bottle of alcohol to his little brother with the expectation that the pledge chug it, has claimed numerous lives, Nuwer’s research shows.
Texas State student Matthew Ellis died in 2017 after guzzling a bottle of liquor during a Phi Kappa Psi pledge event.
Florida State student Andrew Coffey also died in 2017 after drinking a bottle of whiskey from his Pi Kappa Phi big brother.
The deaths of Coffey, Piazza, LSU’s Gruver led to criminalizing hazing in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey (Piazza’s home state), and Louisiana.
But Nuwer doesn’t think the state laws are strong enough to curb hazing.
“It’s very difficult sometimes to get them written because, number one, the definition of hazing is debated,” Nuwer said.
The laws in Indiana and Mississippi, for example, only define hazing as an act that creates a substantial risk of bodily injury. In North Carolina, it is defined as subjecting another to physical injury.
Other states such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey specifically list actions that constitute hazing including whipping, branding, forcing exercise, and depriving sleep, for example.
Nuwer said that he has seen situations in which lawmakers actively fight against reforms because they were in a fraternity or sorority.
“In Georgia. . . a legislator wanted to pass the law but exclude his fraternity, which is, you know, absurd situation,” Nuwer said.
Georgia’s law makes hazing a misdemeanor of “a high and aggravated nature” for activities that endanger or likely will endanger the physical health of a students through pressure to consume food, liquids, alcohol, drugs or other substances.
It’s named for LSU’s Gruver, who grew up in Roswell, Georgia.
The price of acceptance can be demeaning, dangerous and deadly
While hazing deaths make headlines, thousands of other students are subjected to humiliating and/or dangerous activities.
InvestigateTV and its reporting partner the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University requested reports of confirmed hazing cases from the 46 largest public and private universities that are required by their states’ laws to make them public.
The incidents included:
· New members of a spirit group at the University of Texas that had to bite off the head of a live hamster.
· Pledges to a Texas State fraternity who were ordered to jump off a roof, paddle each other and fight.
· Pledges to a Georgia Southern fraternity who were required to buy condoms and other sexually-oriented items that totaled between $4,000 to $5,000.
· An Old Dominion fraternity in Virginia that required pledges to pour hot sauce down their pants to simulate a sexually transmitted disease.
· A historically black sorority that was expelled from Bowling Green State University in Ohio after forcing pledges into acts of servitude and consume alcohol, among other things.
“They all think they’re invincible and that nothing bad is going to happen,” Mrs. Piazza said. “But it can happen in in a split second. You cannot predict what’s going to happen with hazing.”
Nine states require colleges and universities to make public reports about each hazing case including the date of the incident, a description of what happened, the date the organization was found responsible by university conduct boards and the sanctions imposed. Oregon requires its schools to report to the state legislature.
That type of transparency was something that the Piazza’s pushed for in the anti-hazing laws in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.