Hazing has been rightfully described as an epidemic. It is estimated that over half of university students partake in some form of hazing each year, not only in fraternities and sororities, but in recreational clubs, academic clubs, and honor societies as well. In Virginia, hazing victims have rights and protections. But what, exactly, is hazing?
Hazing is Defined by Statute in Virginia
In Virginia, hazing is defined by law as follows:
“[T]o 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 mouthful! But what do all those words mean? Below, we take a look at the various components of this 72-word definition and explain what hazing really means in Virginia.
Recklessly or Intentionally
This part of the definition refers to state of mind or mens rea. Of course, if you purposefully harm someone, that can be a clear case of hazing. Unfortunately, sometimes hazing perpetrators do not mean to harm someone, but harm occurs regardless. If a reasonable person knew or should have known that harm was likely to occur, that is reckless behavior, which can constitute hazing.
One common example of reckless hazing behavior is forced consumption of alcohol, which can lead to serious complications including death. While the hazing perpetrators typically do not mean any real harm to come to the victims, they nevertheless act recklessly in forcing or encouraging victims to consume copious amounts of alcohol. That is hazing, whether the perpetrators intended the harm or not.
Endanger the Health or Safety/Inflict Bodily Injury
If the above part was about state of mind or mens rea, this part is the action or actus rea. There are two broad activities that fall under the definition of hazing in Virginia.
“Endanger the Health or Safety of a Student or Students”
This means that hazing need not result in an actual injury, so long as there was a danger to the victim’s health or safety. For instance, pledges to a fraternity might be required to endure a freezing cold ice bath. That is a dangerous activity that can lead to hypothermia, shock, and even sudden cardiac arrest—and it is not as if fraternities require pledges to submit medical history before joining! Regardless of whether one of those adverse effects actually occur, however, this is hazing, because it endangers the health and safety of he victim.
“Inflict Bodily Injury on a Student or Students.”
In Virginia, “injury” is a very broad term, meaning any bodily hurt whatsoever. A victim does not need to suffer observable wounds, cuts, or breaking of the skin, or provide proof of broken bones or bruises. For example, paddling a pledge’s buttocks meets the definition of bodily injury, regardless of how serious the resulting bruising is. Likewise, causing a pledge to vomit or drink large quantities of liquid would also fall within the definition of injuries established by the hazing statute.
Membership in a Club, etc.
Of course, hazing is not just any injury, but one occurring in a particular context. It must be “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.” There are three important things to note here.
One, the Virginia legislature chose very broad language by using “in connection with” here. It means that hazing does not just include the formal rites or requirements organizations impose on prospective or current members. Rather, events that might seem incidental are included as well. For instance, if a sorority invites prospective members to a party and current members pressure them into excessive alcohol consumption, that is hazing because it was “in connection” with joining the group.
Two, hazing is not limited to joining an organization. Rather, hazing often continues after joining, the junior members typically being hazed by the more senior members. This is notable because some states, such as Maryland, limit hazing to the initiation process only, creating a loophole for hazing in, for instance, athletic teams.
Three, while hazing is typically associated with Greek life (fraternities and sororities), the hazing definition is not so limited. Again, the Virginia legislature chose very broad language here—a “club, organization, association, fraternity, sorority, or student body” essentially covers any congregation of students, whether formal or informal, legitimate or illegitimate. An unchartered fraternity, for instance, would satisfy the definition.
There is, however, one important caveat to the definition of hazing—it applies only to students. While hazing often arises in academic life, it is a sad reality that hazing can be found in other places, such as in the military or workplace. Sadly, the definition of hazing in Virginia does not encompass those situations.
“Regardless of Whether the Student or Students So Endangered or Injured Participated Voluntarily in the Relevant Activity.”
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and likewise, where there’s hazing, there’s bound to be victim blaming as well. Often, perpetrators of hazing will argue that the victims never resisted or perhaps even seemed to enjoy the hazing activities they were subjected to, such as excessive alcohol consumption. It is, of course, difficult to probe the mind of a person. Wisely, the Virginia legislature chose to cut this kind of defense off at the outset by making the agreement of the hazing victim completely irrelevant. It simply does not matter, as far as Virginia is concerned, whether the victim volunteered to the activity or considered the activity to be hazing.
What Rights Does a Hazing Victim Have?
A student is a hazing victim if they fall under the definition discussed above. But what legal rights and protections does a victim of hazing have?
The answer depends on the exact circumstances surrounding the hazing. For example, the perpetrators of the hazing may be liable for negligence. Or they may be liable for assault and battery, if the hazing involved that type of activity. The organization itself, including parent organizations (such as national fraternities), as well as the university may be subject to a lawsuit as well.
Regardless of individual circumstances, however, a hazing victim in Virginia who receives bodily injury will always be able to file a lawsuit under the hazing statute. This law not only defines hazing and imposes criminal penalties, but also says that anyone who receives bodily injury by hazing shall have a right to sue, civilly, the person(s) guilty thereof. It appears that only one court in Virginia has made rulings under the civil lawsuit part of this statute, but that court ruled that the right to sue exists whether or not the perpetrator(s) were criminally charged and convicted.
Fishwick & Associates Represents Hazing Victims in Virginia
If you or a loved one suffered injuries or were otherwise endangered due to hazing in Virginia, Fishwick & Associates can help you understand your legal options. To schedule your confidential consultation, complete our online contact form or call us at 540-345-5890.
Bruckner, Helene (2018) “Students Fall Victim to Hazing Epidemic: Unity at What Cost?,” Touro Law Review: Vol. 34: No. 2, Article 11.
Virginia Code § 18.2-56.
Bryant v. Commonwealth, 189 Va. 310, 316, 53 S.E.2d 54, 57 (1949).
English v. Commonwealth, 58 Va. App. 711, 719, 715 S.E.2d 391, 395 (2011).
Marcantonio v. Dudzinski, 155 F. Supp. 3d 619, 630 (W.D. Va. 2015).
Liberati v. Andress, No. CL19-5765, 2021 Va. Cir. LEXIS 120 (Radford Apr. 23, 2021).