Hazing expert says laws must be stiffened to slow down deaths, injuries

Posted at 12:18 AM, Apr 26, 2013
and last updated 2013-04-26 00:19:06-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WTVR) -- Two 19-year-old Virginia State University students - Marvell Edmondson and Jauwan Holmes - became the first two hazing deaths in the nation this year.

“We’ve had a death every year from 1970 to 2013” in the U.S., says former University of Richmond visiting professor and nationally recognized hazing expert Hank Nuwer. “And some years, six or seven and more deaths in a year.”

The two VSU students drowned in the rain-swollen Appomattox River while crossing it as the final stage of an initiation to the Men of Honor social group.

It took five days to recover both of their bodies, but far less time to charge the men who allegedly led the initiation rite.

They’re charged with Class 1 misdemeanors, punishable by a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Virginia is one of 44 states with anti-hazing laws, but it’s only a felony in two states.

“Only Florida and California have laws that have fangs,” Nuwer said, “that can really put some bite into what can happen to people. In most cases they are simple misdemeanors and, in many cases – because hazing cases can be so hard to prove and because (the accused) are younger – the charges never get followed up. And in terms of civil suits, fraternities are all too willing to settle so that the details do not become public.

VSU has had previous issues with hazing. (The Men of Honor group is not university sanctioned.) The school was sued in 2009. And last summer, the president of the university Student Government Association was charged with hazing.

That case was put under advisement by the judge, who will review it next month. The defendant was charged $84 dollars in court costs.

Virginia’s hazing law turned 85 years old three weeks ago. One of the oldest hazing laws in the land, it was born at Virginia Military Institute after a “rat” lost his appendix following blows to his stomach.

But the law has changed little since then. Even worse, critics say, the hazing has to be reported to police by the school president.

Hazing is as old as the oldest schools of learning. It has been banned at some schools for hundreds of years.

But it was still something to snicker about just a generation ago, as we saw in the 1978 movie “Animal House.”

Until fairly recently, hazing photos were routinely printed in school yearbooks and student newspapers, Nuwer said.

Some high-profile deaths and multimillion-dollar lawsuits shifted the tide, and now hazing awareness is widespread and the once-common practice is banned at virtually all campuses.

What’s missing, Nuwer said, is stiffer penalties.

“That kind of harshening penalties,” he said, “is what finally got people listening in terms of date rape.”