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The Chronicle interviews activist Lianne Kowiak

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Their Lives Are Ruined’

JUNE 04, 2017 

Excerpt: In the nine years since her son was pummeled to death in the dark on a frozen field by members of the fraternity he was eager to join, Lianne Kowiak has become one of the nation’s most tireless anti-hazing activists.She’s traveled the country, urging lawmakers to pass anti-hazing legislation. She’s pleaded with college officials to take on more responsibility for a problem that has killed at least 49 students since 2005.

But the conversations that have been the most wrenching, she says, are the ones she has with young men who are either in or considering joining a fraternity.

She talks about how eager her son, Harrison, 19, was to have the “full college experience” at Lenoir-Rhyne University, where he was on golf and academic scholarships. Joining a fraternity was part of that. She recounts how he was repeatedly knocked down by students who outweighed him by 100 pounds, and how no one called for help until it was too late.

“I’ve had mothers ask me how I can work with fraternities,” she says. “My answer is, How else are they going to learn?”

Authorities are starting to crack down. Members of a fraternity at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, were criminally charged after the 2013 death of a pledge, Chun Hsien Deng. Eighteen members of a Pennsylvania State University fraternity face criminal charges for failing to help a pledge, Timothy Piazza, who died in February after being pressured to drink potentially lethal amounts of alcohol and then falling down stairs.

Ms. Kowiak talked with The Chronicle about what has and hasn’t changed in the years she’s devoted to fighting hazing.

What led you to decide to dedicate much of your life to exposing the dangers of hazing?

Initially there’s grief, then sadness, and then anger that so many innocent lives are being lost. I was working at the time and was able to bury myself in my work. But one day, I was sitting at my kitchen table and I was just frustrated. It wasn’t right. Harrison’s life was taken way too early. I didn’t want his death to be in vain.

What did you do next?

When I started doing research, I learned that if this had happened in Florida, it would have been a felony. In North Carolina, it was a misdemeanor, so they just got a slap on the wrist. I wanted to do what I could to make the laws stronger. My county representative recommended I speak with a congresswoman in Miami, Frederica Wilson, who had talked about introducing a national anti-hazing bill. She was kind enough to invite me and our daughter, Emma, to appear with her at a Capitol Hill news conference. But that bill, which would have denied financial aid to students who haze, was never introduced after a powerful fraternity lobby convinced her it would be unfair and hurt Greek life.

When criminal charges were brought in connection with recent hazing-related deaths, both at Baruch College and at Penn State, did you see this as a positive development?

I hesitate to use the word “positive” when talking about this, because for the people being charged, their lives are ruined. But nothing is going to happen if there aren’t strong laws in place.

What allies have you had in this fight?

Sadly, in this journey I’ve met other moms who have lost a child to hazing. Every time I see Timothy Piazza’s photo, my heart sinks. When I heard his parents and brother being interviewed, the emotions and words coming out of their mouths were so similar to what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

Timothy Piazza’s death from injuries suffered at Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity in February was the latest hazing tragedy. At least 49 students have died from hazing since 2005.

 

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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