HAZING CHARGES: ARE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES CASTING TOO WIDE OF A NET?
By Jonathan Cook
For Many Decades Hazing Complaints Were Swept Under the Rug by Colleges and Universities. Hazing was shrugged off as nothing more than a right of passage. Fortunately, Colleges and Universities finally caught up with common sense. Today, every College and University in the U.S. explicitly prohibits hazing and most states have statutes criminalizing hazing. Colleges and Universities are absolutely right to treat all reports and complaints of hazing very seriously. Hazing is dangerous and can cause mental and physical harm and even death. However, many students are suspended and even expelled for engaging in group activities that are not intended to cause physical or mental harm and do not result in physical or mental harm.
Have Colleges and Universities overcorrected past failures by casting too wide of a net? Colleges and Universities' hazing definitions are typically very broad, and always more broad than anti-hazing criminal statutes. For example, Rhode Island Law defines hazing as:
"Any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization, whether on public or private property, which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person." See Rhode Island General Laws at § 11-21-1 (most, but not all states have anti-hazing laws). The legislative intent is clear--to protect the health and wellness of students.
In contrast, the University of Rhode Island's Anti-Hazing Policy which includes "treasure hunts," wearing "apparel which is conspicuous" and "buffoonery," is much more broad and confusing:
"any action taken or situation created (the willingness of an individual to participate notwithstanding) upon which initiation, admission into, or affiliation with an organization is directly or indirectly conditioned and which produces mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule. Such activities and situations include, but are not limited to, paddling in any form; infliction of excessive fatigue; exposure to the elements; forced consumption of any substance; physical and psychological shocks, quests, treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, road trips, or any other such activities; wearing, publicly, apparel which is conspicuous and not normally in good taste; engaging in public stunts and buffoonery, morally degrading or humiliating games and activities; late work sessions which interfere with scholastic activities." See URI Student Handbook at 2.13.
Lumping so many activities into a hazing statute often leads to the same consequences notwithstanding a disparity in the seriousness of the alleged conduct. For example, all too often a student found responsible at a Campus Disciplinary Hearing for less serious conduct like simply being present during a "scavenger hunt" receives the same notation on his or her transcript as a student found responsible for forcing a student to drink alcohol. Any disciplinary violation related to hazing, no matter the severity of the imposed sanction, can result in consequences just as damaging to a student's future as a criminal conviction. An experienced Student Defense Lawyer can navigate the often confusing campus disciplinary proceedings and help to ensure the best possible outcome.
Remember: although it is extremely important to hire an experienced Student Defense Attorney as early in Campus Disciplinary Proceedings as possible (as soon as a notice of charges is received, if not before), it is never too late. Whether a student has already been sanctioned and is in the appeals stage or even after an appeal has been denied, an experienced Student Defense Attorney can offer invaluable help.
Jonathan Cook at New England Student Defense has represented over 150 students at Colleges and Universities nationwide from Yale University and Georgetown University to the University of Houston and Tulane University.
These materials have been prepared by SRT for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.