The dictionary defines hazing as “an initiation process involving harassment.” That definition does little to capture the humiliating, abusive, and dangerous acts that are associated with hazing in American universities and high schools. Nor do media depictions of hazing, from the comparatively tame Animal House to the raunchier Old School, adequately reflect the reality of hazing that so many of our nation’s youth can attest to. Hazing can and has resulted in death and serious personal injuries.
If you or a loved one suffered injuries during a hazing incident, it’s important to understand your legal options. Read on to learn more.
What Is Hazing?
Academic hazing typically involves forced initiation activities where a student “proves” their worth and commitment to an organization such as a fraternity, sorority, sports team, or honors society. Common hazing practices involve forced consumption of food and alcohol, enduring humiliation and hardship, and even physical violence. According to the National Study of Student Hazing, roughly 73% of fraternity and sorority members experience at least one episode of hazing in their lives.
Hazing can lead to both civil liability and criminal charges. For example, a fraternity brother striking a pledge could result in both criminal and civil assault and battery allegations. A sorority member’s humiliating demands of a pledge could rise to the level of intentional infliction of emotional distress. Greek and other organizations as well as their members, national affiliates, and even universities may face liability as a result of hazing activities.
Virginia also has a statute that addresses hazing directly: Virginia Code §18.2-56. This hazing statute creates both criminal penalties and a civil cause of action for hazing. It reads:
It shall be unlawful to haze so as to cause bodily injury, any student at any school or institution of higher education.
Any person found guilty thereof shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Any person receiving bodily injury by hazing shall have a right to sue, civilly, the person or persons guilty thereof, whether adults or infants.
The president or other presiding official of any school or institution of higher education receiving appropriations from the state treasury shall, upon satisfactory proof of the guilt of any student hazing another student, sanction and discipline such student in accordance with the institution’s policies and procedures. The institution’s policies and procedures shall provide for expulsions or other appropriate discipline based on the facts and circumstances of each case and shall be consistent with the model policies established by the Department of Education or the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, as applicable. The president or other presiding official of any school or institution of higher education receiving appropriations from the state treasury shall report hazing which causes bodily injury to the attorney for the Commonwealth of the county or city in which such school or institution of higher education is, who shall take such action as he deems appropriate.
For the purposes of this section, “hazing” means to recklessly or intentionally endanger the health or safety of a student or students or to inflict bodily injury on a student or students in connection with or for the purpose of initiation, admission into or affiliation with or as a condition for continued membership in a club, organization, association, fraternity, sorority, or student body regardless of whether the student or students so endangered or injured participated voluntarily in the relevant activity.
That’s a lot to take in, so let’s break down our state’s hazing statute.
The Statute Defines Hazing Differently Than the Dictionary
Virginia’s hazing statute defines hazing in more technical and narrow terms compared to the dictionary. Hazing, under the Virginia statute, occurs when someone inflicts bodily injury or recklessly or intentionally endangers a student’s health or safety. Notably, the law does not require the hazer or hazers to have intended to cause harm so long as they act recklessly.
The statute’s definition of hazing also mandates that the victim is a student and that the hazing was performed “for the purpose of initiation, admission into, or as a condition for membership in a club, organization, association, fraternity, sorority, or student body.”
Under the Virginia hazing statute, hazing can occur even if the victim voluntarily participated in the initiation. A victim may not object to being hazed — at least at the time of the activity — due to peer, social, and psychological pressures. Perpetrators of hazing cannot avoid punishment in Virginia due to the apparent consent of the victim.
Virginia’s Hazing Law Broadly Defines Bodily Injury
Virginia’s hazing statute only prohibits hazing that causes bodily injury. But what is a bodily injury? The answer, in Virginia, is rather expansive.
The Supreme Court of Virginia has said that bodily injury means “any bodily hurt whatsoever.” (Bryant v. Commonwealth, 189 Va. 310, 316, 53 S.E.2d 54, 57 (1949)) A victim does not need to suffer “observable wounds, cuts, or breaking of the skin,” or provide “proof of ‘broken bones or bruises.’” (English v. Commonwealth, 58 Va. App. 711, 719, 715 S.E.2d 391, 395 (2011) (quoting Luck v. Commonwealth, 32 Va. App. 827, 832, 531 S.E.2d 41, 43 (2000)).
For example, paddling a pledge’s buttocks meets the definition of bodily injury, regardless of how serious the bruising. Causing a pledge to vomit or drink large quantities of liquid would also fall within the definition of injuries established by the hazing statute. (Marcantonio v. Dudzinski, 155 F. Supp. 3d 619, 630 (W.D. Va. 2015)).
Victims of Hazing Can Make Both Civil and Criminal Claims
Virginia’s hazing statute makes hazing a Class 1 misdemeanor that can result in up to twelve months of jail time and a fine of up to $2,500 for each offense.
The statute also grants victims of hazing the right to sue their abusers regardless of whether those abusers are adults or minors. This cause of action is independent of other related claims, including negligence, assault, battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Unfortunately, there is a noticeable lack of Virginia case law related to the hazing statute. This is perhaps a symptom of the larger hazing epidemic. Intimidation, fear, and conditioning often leave victims of hazing unwilling or unable to speak out. Many times, victims eventually perpetrate the same abuse they were once made to suffer.
Change may be coming. According to Time magazine, we are in the midst of “an unprecedented national conversation about the dangers of fraternity culture.” At Fishwick & Associates, we encourage all hazing victims to speak out and break this cycle of violence and humiliation.
What Should Hazing Victims Do to Protect Themselves?
The hazing statute prohibits many forms of hazing and treats such acts with the seriousness they deserve by imposing criminal consequences and permitting civil penalties. Hazing victims should keep the hazing statute in mind; it might be the tool needed to make victims whole.
At Fishwick & Associates, we can guide hazing victims through complex claims against the individuals and organizations that injured them.
Fishwick & Associates: Fighting for Hazing Victims in Virginia
If you or a loved one suffered serious hazing injuries in Virginia, Fishwick & Associates can help you understand your legal options at no cost to you. To schedule your free and confidential consultation, complete our online contact form or call us at 540.345.5890.
Allan, E., & Madden, M. (2008, March 11). Hazing in view: College students at risk: Initial findings form the National Study of Student Hazing. Stop Hazing. Retrieved from http://www.stophazing.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/hazing_in_view_web1.pdf
Hazing. (n.d.) Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hazing
Reilly, K. (2017, December 21). “Those families are changed forever”: A deadly year in fraternity hazing comes to a close. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/5071813/fraternity-hazing-deaths-2017/
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