Fraternity organizations are endorsing pending federal legislation aimed at deterring abuse at initiation rituals.
The North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 75 national fraternities, and two other Greek organizations said in a statement that they support the bill. People United to Eradicate Hazing, the parents’ group, plans to urge U.S. Education Department officials to back the measure during a meeting later this month.
Under the bill introduced in January by U.S. Representative Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, students convicted under state law of hazing would lose eligibility for federal grants and loans. While parents of victims have supported a national penalty in the past, fraternity groups lobbied against a 2012 anti-hazing proposal. Grayson’s bill reflects growing concern about the toll of hazing at fraternities, on sports teams and elsewhere on college campuses.
“Why should federal taxpayers have to subsidize the education of bullies?” Grayson said in an interview. “It’s no-cost social legislation. It doesn’t cost any money, and it deals with a problem of discipline.”
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Forty-four states have anti-hazing laws, most of which include criminal penalties, though they are often misdemeanors with fines as low as $500. In Maryland, the state legislature is considering increasing the fine to $5,000 from $500 in the wake of a Bloomberg News report in December that Sigma Alpha Epsilon members at Salisbury University submerged recruits in trash cans filled with ice and kept them confined in a dark basement while German metal music played at ear-splitting volume.
On Feb. 2, SAE’s national organization suspended its Salisbury chapter following “an investigation into allegations regarding the new-member program,” according to SAE’s website. The group cited “health-and-safety violations and the failure of members to uphold the stringent policies and procedures outlined by the national organization.” Last week, the university said the SAE chapter had violated the terms of the school’s earlier sanction and extended the chapter’s suspension from campus through the summer of 2015.
Three-quarters of U.S. fraternity and sorority members have reported being hazed, according to a 2008 University of Maine study. There have been more than 60 fraternity-related deaths since 2005, most involving alcohol and hazing, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News. About 40 percent were college freshmen, considered especially vulnerable because many are on their own for the first time.
In December, a freshman pledging Pi Delta Psi at New York City’s Baruch College died after being repeatedly tackled in an initiation in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Prosecutors in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, are investigating his death.
Like Grayson’s bill, a 2012 proposal by U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson, also a Florida Democrat, punished hazing through denial of financial aid.
Fraternity and sorority groups and their political arm, the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, known as “FratPAC,” fought Wilson’s proposal, and she didn’t introduce a bill, Bloomberg News reported in July. Some colleges and community groups also opposed her plan.
FratPAC and other fraternity groups told members in a 2012 memorandum that “hazing is a criminal offense and should be handled by the state judicial system.”
While Wilson’s plan would have revoked aid to students disciplined for hazing by their universities, Grayson’s bill is limited to students convicted of hazing in state courts. Such prosecutions are rare, according to the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Virginia.
The interfraternity conference, FratPAC, and the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 26 sororities, said in their statement that they back Grayson’s measure because it is limited to students who have been criminally convicted.
“We support this type of federal anti-hazing legislation,” they said.
Andy Huston, a spokesman for the fraternity conference, said that Greek groups would have supported Wilson’s proposal “if the loss of federal financial aid was tied to a criminal conviction.” Thus, their position on Grayson’s bill is consistent with their earlier position, he said.
People United, the parents’ group, plans to focus on hazing not just at fraternities but in high school and college sports. One member, Lianne Kowiak, said she hopes Grayson will push harder for a federal law than Wilson did. In 2008, Kowiak’s 19-year-old son, Harrison, died at Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, North Carolina, after fraternity brothers pummeled the sophomore on a pitch-black field as part of an initiation ritual.
“We’re looking forward to seeing some momentum,” Kowiak, who lives in Tampa, said in an interview. “With Congresswoman Wilson, unfortunately we did not see any follow-up action.”
A spokeswoman for Wilson declined to comment.
Grayson is seeking to have his bill included in this year’s scheduled reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which governs post-secondary education.
Given Congressional gridlock and the complexity of the Higher Education Act, reauthorization is unlikely to be completed this year, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, a Washington-based group representing more than 1,800 college presidents.
Hartle said his organization hasn’t taken a position on Grayson’s bill. He said the proposal would treat hazing more harshly than almost all felonies, which don’t preclude a student from getting aid. Currently, drug offenses while in school, and, in some cases, sex crimes can disqualify students from federal loans and grants.
In addition, wealthier students who don’t need aid will be able to attend college after hazing convictions, while poorer ones won’t, Hartle said. He also cited the scarcity of hazing convictions, saying the measure may not make much difference.
“No college or university president likes hazing,” Hartle said. “It’s hard to argue with the idea [of the law]. I’m not sure there will be a big impact.”
Grayson said the measure would send a strong message, pitting the full force of the federal government against hazing.
“We want this to end and we will do whatever is in our power to end it,” Grayson said. “I have five children of my own, and I want them to be free from bullying and hazing.”
The bill is H.R. 3898.
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