Editorial: When hazing kills, there can be no excuse for inaction

This is a recent editorial by the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Can anyone in Ohio or the country by now not be aware that hazing can kill? That inducing a student to consume what one Ohio lawyer called “a copious amount of alcohol” — as allegedly happened in this month’s death of Bowling Green State University sophomore Stone Foltz — can be lethal? That inhaling chemicals in the guise of “pledging” to a fraternity can be just as deadly, as a coroner determined was what caused the 2018 hazing death of Ohio University freshman Collin Wiant?

And can those who govern Ohio’s universities have any doubt about their own culpability?

There should be zero tolerance on every campus in the state for hazing. It shouldn’t take a new law to make that plain. Fraternities at Ohio’s colleges should be told repeatedly that they operate on a knife’s edge, that a ban is the unqualified and certain result of any hazing abuses, and that there will be no tolerance, zero, for any violations.

Hazing also won’t stop until universities stop celebrating and supporting fraternities. If that means banning fraternities as the surest way to keep more young men from unnecessary suffering and death, so be it.

Meantime, a new law also is coming.

After Wiant’s death, his parents demanded action and change, and Collin’s Law, House Bill 310, sponsored by then-state Rep. Dave Greenspan of Westlake, cleared the Ohio House on a lopsided, bipartisan 74-14 vote last November. But it died in a state Senate committee.

The Greenspan bill sought to address both college hazing and kindergarten-through-12th-grade bullying.

After Stone Foltz’s March 7 death, following an apparent hazing incident at an off-campus Pi Kappa Alpha (PIKE) fraternity house near BGSU, Collin’s Law is back — introduced Wednesday as Ohio Senate Bill 126 by Republican state Sens. Theresa Gavarone of Bowling Green and Stephanie Kunze of the Columbus area, where both Wiant and Foltz were from.

This time, the bill is focused solely on college hazing — making “aggravated hazing” a second-degree felony and requiring the state chancellor of higher education to develop and distribute an educational plan to address hazing, including model anti-hazing policy and hazing awareness and education.

Among the four co-sponsors, as of Thursday, were Democratic state Sens. Nickie Antonio of Lakewood and Kenny Yuko of Euclid and GOP state Sen. Jerry Cirino of Kirtland.

With Gov. Mike DeWine calling for Ohio to become a “hazing-free” state and holding a phone call with presidents of the state’s universities to urge them to undertake more concerted action to crack down on hazing abuse, it’s likely SB 126 will move more swiftly than its predecessor. Giving prosecutors more tools to investigate and prosecute hazing crimes is also critical.

It’s up to universities that host fraternities to do far more than just closing the barn door, that is, the local fraternity house, after someone dies, and doing more to make students aware and wary.

Yet students should also know that, even without SB 126, the penalties for contributing to a hazing death can be heavy. After Wiant’s 2018 death — and following a six-part investigation by The Columbus Dispatch — nine people were indicted in Athens County, including eight students or former students. A number have already pleaded guilty to drug-related felonies and other charges.

Having caused or contributed to another’s death is in itself a heavy burden to carry through life. But felony convictions are not what most college students expect to take with them from the frat house into the world.

The bottom line is easy to say and write: Don’t haze, don’t participate in hazing, don’t allow yourself to be pressured into potentially deadly hazing practices.

But there’s a crueler, more corrosive level to hazing. While inhaling a whippit is what caused Wiant’s death, he also reportedly was beaten and waterboarded.

Plainly put, that is torture.

Hazing is barbaric and wrong, and should end, and if it requires creating a new felony crime in Ohio and forcing Ohio universities to crack down, that is what should happen. Collin’s law — Foltz’s law — should become the law in Ohio, and Ohio’s universities should move swiftly to adopt their own zero-tolerance policies.

— Cleveland Plain Dealer, March 12