Spring Break Alert: Maintaining Focus to Restrict Hazing
As colleges and universities across the nation plan their Spring Break activities and prepare for the return of in-person learning, educational institutions must remember that hazing is not limited to the Fall “rush” or on-campus activities. Spring break may bring additional challenges for colleges and universities as students remaining on campus are less visible to faculty and staff while classes are in recess. Maintaining proper oversight of campus-related activities to restrict hazing activities will be critical to ensuring proper compliance with growing restrictions under anti-hazing laws.
Hazing is not a new phenomenon. It includes a wide range of conduct, such as excessive alcohol consumption, physical violence and any activity that may cause mental health injury. As hazing-related injuries and deaths have garnered more attention in recent years and anti-hazing legislation has cracked down on hazing activities, students who haze and the institutions they attend face an ever-increasing risk of liability.
What are the legal risks of hazing?
Anti-hazing laws are enacted at the state level and vary by jurisdiction. Forty-six states have some type of hazing regulation, and others continue to propose legislation to bolster efforts to prevent hazing. Many states include activities occurring off campus or extend the policy to off-campus housing used by organizations sanctioned by the institution. Most state laws define hazing using some variation of the following language:
intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly engaging in or participating in acts, which endanger another for the purpose of initiation into, admission into, affiliation with, holding office in, or as a condition for membership in a school or school sponsored team, organization, program, club, or event.
Several states also include language in the statute indicating that consent will not be a defense to sanctions for hazing.
Hazing liability is split into three categories:
- criminal statutes, which can affect individuals (students, coaches, educators) or institutions (schools, fraternities, sororities, clubs, teams);
- civil liability against both individuals and institutions; and
- the education code, violations of which can lead to loss of funding for failure to properly investigate and handle hazing incidents.
More than a dozen states criminalize the acts and omissions of both individuals and organizations, including educational institutions.
How can you mitigate your institution’s risk of exposure to liability?
Anti-hazing compliance is critical to limiting the risk of liability. Institutions must have policies and procedures in place that prohibit and discipline hazing. Hazing policies, which should be posted on the school’s website, may include a system to impose fines, withhold diplomas for failure to pay fines, impose probation, suspend, and/or expel students engaging in hazing. Schools are also legally required to provide a copy of their hazing policy to every student organization. As students prepare to depart for spring break, schools should circulate to all students a reminder of its anti-hazing policy and how it applies to activities occurring away from campus.
Proper record keeping will also limit the risk of liability. Many states impose record-keeping and reporting requirements for institutions. Schools should maintain data for all reported hazing violations. Each such report should include: (1) the name of the student accused of hazing; (2) the date of the accused activity and the date a report was made; (3) a general description of the alleged violation; (4) a description of the investigation and findings by the institution, if applicable; (5) penalties imposed by the institution, if applicable; and (6) the date on which the matter was resolved. The information contained within the records will assist the school with evaluating its current hazing policies and guidelines for student conduct violations.
Hazing impacts more than an individual or organization—it impacts the institution’s educational goals. Understanding how to prevent an environment that includes hazing will help to mitigate risk of exposure to potential legal liability as well as help to ensure that its students have a safe environment within which to succeed.
Armstrong Teasdale’s Higher Education attorneys have significant experience advising educational institutions on hazing compliance and defending them against allegations of violations of anti-hazing laws. Please contact our team for additional information for proactive guidance specific to your institution.