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Federal and state hazing bills hope to change law, culture around student orgs

Susan Tebben, Ohio Capital Journal

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U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) / USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

As state legislators try to change Ohio laws regarding the crime of hazing, one U.S. Senator from Ohio is helping reintroduce nationwide legislation changes on the topic.

The mother of an Ohio University student who died in what officials called a hazing incident in 2018 joined Sen. Sherrod Brown on a recent press call, speaking in support of legislation regarding hazing reports at student clubs and organizations.

“We have a culture that dismisses hazing with this ‘boys will be boys mentality,” Kathleen Wiant said.

Wiant’s son, Collin, was found at a house on Mill Street in Athens, occupied by members of the Sigma Pi fraternity, and a toxicology report showed Wiant had died of asphyxiation via nitrous oxide ingestion.

Discussions about hazing came back to the forefront after yet another college student died, this time at Bowling Green State University. Stone Foltz died earlier this month, reportedly as a result of a hazing incident involving the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

BGSU put the fraternity on an interim suspension, along with suspending new member intake processes and social events for the university’s four Greek councils, as the investigation into Foltz’s death continues.

Nine men were charged in connection with Wiant’s death, some including drug charges and misdemeanor hazing counts.

It’s the level of those charges that state Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Hilliard, and Sen. Theresa Gavarone, R-Bowling Green, are hoping to address as part of their own bill currently pending in the Ohio legislature.

The measure would establish an offense of “aggravated hazing” as a second-degree felony. The charge would fall on those accused of causing death, physical harm or “substantial risk” of physical harm to a victim, “acting with reckless indifference to the health and safety of the victim, and causing or forcing consumption of alcohol or drug abuse,” according to analysis of the bill by the Legislative Service Commission.

Senate Bill 126 would also make the offense of “hazing” a first-degree misdemeanor rather than a fourth-degree as it currently is in Ohio law. The crime will be elevated to a fifth-degree felony “if the hazing causes physical harm to the victim.”

Failing to report hazing would also become a crime under the bill, rising to the level currently held for those charged directly for hazing.

The bill is the second try for what sponsors are calling “Collin’s Law,” which passed the Ohio House in the last General Assembly, but didn’t make it through a Senate committee by the time the GA ended last year.

The federal bill, whose main sponsor is Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar with Brown as a cosponsor, would require hazing incidents to be reported as part of a college’s annual crime report (called the Clery Act report), establish a definition for hazing as a reportable offense, and require colleges and universities to establish an education program about the dangers of hazing.

“We can’t do something about this until we have good data about how many kids this is happening to,” Brown said.

It’s also not the first time federal legislation about hazing has been put before the U.S. Congress, with a version previously introduced by another legislator from Ohio, U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, in 2019. The first time, the bill didn’t make it out of committee.

Wiant said the state and federal legislation’s demands for education programs within universities and colleges will be important in bringing change to the culture along with the changes to criminal charges.

“We know that when we change laws, it does change behavior,” Wiant said. “Once people realize it’s taken seriously and this becomes a felony, people realize ‘I want to graduate from college, not get a felony.’”

The state bill is being considered by the Senate Workforce and Higher Education Committee, which has held one hearing on the bill.

The federal bill was introduced and assigned to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.


This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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