Tough New Law Against Hazing

Florida legislation gives prosecutors the ability to bring charges against fraternity and sorority members who weren't present for hazing but helped plan it.

July 18, 2019
 
Andrew Coffey

Florida’s governor has signed one of the country’s most intricate antihazing laws, an attempt to stem the sometimes deadly rituals by expanding those who could be criminally liable and offering protections for those who help an ailing victim.

Historians and experts say the law is among the “most cutting-edge” in the nation. That’s largely because of the unique provisions that ensure Good Samaritans can’t be prosecuted if they see a hazing victim needs medical attention and they’re the first to contact 911 or campus security. In order to escape criminal charges, the person making the phone call would need to remain on the scene until help arrived, according to the law. Such a measure may reduce hazing-related deaths if students don’t fear being punished for contacting authorities. Under the law, a person could also be immune from charges if he or she administered medical aid.

Even those who orchestrated the hazing can take advantage of these exemptions.

“In a few remote possible cases, a true perpetrator of hazing may escape prosecution, but it is far more important that lives do not get extinguished while perps cower in fear and do nothing to save their friends,” said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written extensively about hazing.

Under the new law, those who weren’t physically present during a hazing event, but who helped plan it, can now be prosecuted. This would likely affect a fraternity or sorority leader, but Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, said he could envision a legal scenario in which administrators could also be held liable.

Sometimes officials must sign off on a Greek life event, and Lake said the law will likely test whether they would be immune from criminal charges or a civil case.

“This is definitely a new frontier for hazing prevention,” Lake said.

Nuwer said that chapter members have tended to skate by when a prosecutor brings charges only to the most “active” perpetrators and chapter officers.

“Finally it is recognized that individuals in the entire chapter bear some responsibility in a death when they knew, planned and abated actions by the most fervent zealots in the group who took things to a dangerous and fatal level,” Nuwer said.

Andrew’s Law, which the governor approved last month, is named for Andrew Coffey, a Florida State University pledge who died in November 2017 after he drank an entire fifth of Wild Turkey bourbon at an off-campus party.

Coffey, 20, was participating in a “big brother” night where the initiates were expected to finish the bottle of alcohol presented to them by their “big.” Coffey did -- he then fell unconscious and was carried to a couch and ignored until the early morning. His “big” had gone home. Coffey was found without a pulse. His autopsy found he died of alcohol poisoning -- his blood alcohol level was 0.447, nearly six times the legal driving limit.

His death upended Greek life at Florida State. The president, John E. Thrasher, shut down all fraternity and sorority activities that November, proclaiming the entire network of 50-some chapters needed to be reworked. Florida State did not respond to request for comment for this piece.

A couple of months later, Thrasher partially lifted the ban, adding new requirements for Greek life, requiring fraternities and sororities to use a third-party vendor to supply their booze and shortening the recruitment “rush” period, when many of these incidents occur.

But antihazing advocates, among them Coffey’s parents, were not fully satisfied. They lobbied the Florida Legislature to amp up the state’s law, which was already one of the stricter in the United States.

In 2005, Florida politicians made hazing a first-degree misdemeanor and a third-degree felony if a victim was seriously injured or died -- they named the law the Chad Meredith Act, for a University of Miami student who drowned in a hazing death in 2001. Then-governor Jeb Bush signed the law.

David Bianchi, one of the lawyers who helped write the Chad Meredith Act, also worked on Andrew's Law.

Bianchi, who represented the Coffey family, said prior to the bill’s passage that the law needed some improvements. He referenced a hazing case last year, also at Florida State. During a hazing game, Nicholas Mauricio was hit so hard in the face he fractured his skull and was left unconscious. He lived, but police said at the time there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the fraternity members for hazing (Mauricio was already a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity but was not yet registered as a Florida State student).

The new law closes that loophole -- under the legislation, current members of a group can also be considered hazing victims.

The bill sailed through the legislative process, being unanimously approved at every step. It was bipartisan, being sponsored chiefly by both a Democrat and Republican. Lake said lawmakers were likely confident in passing the legislation after a Florida Supreme Court ruling in December that flatly rejected a challenge to the Chad Meredith Act as potentially unconstitutional.

On the federal side, two U.S. representatives, Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, and G. T. Thompson, a Pennsylvania Republican, last month introduced the End All Hazing Act, an amendment to the Higher Education Act.

It would require institutions to maintain a website that would publicize information about student organizations that had been disciplined for hazing. Colleges and university officials would also need to report allegations of potentially deadly hazing within 72 hours to campus police or other law enforcement.

The End All Hazing Act has been endorsed by the National Panhellenic Conference and the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents many sororities and fraternities nationally. Both groups created the Anti-Hazing Coalition, along with parents of students who died from hazing.

Andrea Benek, a spokeswoman with the North-American Interfraternity Conference, provided a statement on the new Florida law to Inside Higher Ed:

“The North-American Interfraternity Conference is deeply committed to eradicating hazing by advocating for stronger laws throughout the country. We support comprehensive hazing prevention measures -- proactive education, transparency and accountability around standards -- enacted through federal and state legislation. We work in partnership with the Anti-Hazing Coalition to make lasting cultural change in student organizations and on university campuses.”

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