As Campus Life Resumes, So Does Concern Over Hazing

May 4, 2021
Originally published on May 5, 2021 7:54 am

There were zero reported deaths from college hazing incidents in 2020, but as campuses reopen to students, there have already been two hazing-related deaths this year. Eight men face a range of charges, including involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, evidence tampering and failure to comply with underage alcohol laws, after Stone Foltz, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, died on March 7 of alcohol poisoning.

At a news conference on April 29, Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson described the fraternity event in which initiates were told to drink 750 milliliters of hard alcohol — or about 40 shots, according to Hank Nuwer, editor of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives. Dobson said Foltz's death was "the result of a fatal level of alcohol intoxication during a hazing incident."

Experts like Nuwer are concerned that as students return to in-person learning and are eager to take part in "the college experience," more hazing-related deaths may be on the way.

"There seems to be a disconnect — not seeing that alcohol-related hazing can kill," he says.

Nuwer is a professor emeritus of journalism at Franklin College and the author of five books on hazing. He spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about how the Stone Foltz case could reshape hazing prosecution, how college campuses create a "perfect storm" for hazing and how to put an end to the practice, once and for all.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On the legal history of prosecuting hazing

There've been charges all along, but often they get dropped or they're unsuccessful. I would consider this to be a landmark case because of the possibility of at least five years of imprisonment, if the prosecutor is successful.

We have 44 state laws out there on hazing, but some are very, very weak. And Ohio's is weak now, but they're trying to strengthen it after a death at Ohio University [in 2018] and now Bowling Green.

On what the return to college campuses means for hazing

What I'm seeing is, in effect, we have two freshmen classes in that the sophomores have been taking online classes. Now they're going to be out there, and they haven't had any hazing or alcohol education programs. They're coming out there with a gusto because now they're the people of status, who have power over these pledges. And then the regular freshman class is coming in, all excited as usual, and we've seen so many times where a death occurs within the first couple of days of the students on campus, sometimes before they've taken a single class.

On the challenges to end fraternity hazing

In my opinion, campuses are the perfect storm for something like this because we're all about status and power. All of these obstacles have led to today, when alcohol has been added to the mix. There wasn't a single alcohol death before 1940. Now, it's one of the most major [causes of hazing-related deaths]. There were 62 deaths from 2009 to 2021; 39 were alcohol related.

On whether this is a chance for colleges to reset this part of campus culture

I want a hard approach. You have to go after the alumni who are encouraging this. You have to punish all of the hazing — not temporarily. This tradition has to stop, and it can't be looked at as tradition. As Mr. [Paul] Dobson, the prosecutor, is doing in the Stone Foltz case: You have to prosecute to the fullest extent [of the law].

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There were zero reported deaths from college hazing incidents in 2020, but the pandemic lull on campuses is fading. And six young men have been charged with manslaughter after a sophomore at Bowling Green State University died of alcohol poisoning at a fraternity party. It's the second hazing-related death this year. Experts like Hank Nuwer are concerned that more may be on the way. He's an emeritus professor of journalism at Franklin College. He's written five books on hazing.

Welcome to the program.

HANK NUWER: Thank you.

CORNISH: Can you give us just shortly the details of the Ohio case?

NUWER: Well, Ohio's had several problems this particular year. But Stone Foltz died at Bowling Green State University. He was asked to drink a handle of alcohol, which amounts to 40 shots.

CORNISH: As I mentioned, several people have been charged in this case. And among those charges, there's involuntary manslaughter, hazing, obstruction of justice. How common are charges at all in these kinds of cases and these particular charges in this one?

NUWER: There have been charges all along, but often they get dropped or they're unsuccessful. So I would consider this to be a landmark case because of the possibility of at least five years of imprisonment if the prosecutor is successful.

CORNISH: Can we dig into that a little bit more? Why is it common for these cases to be dropped or dismissed? What's going on legally?

NUWER: Some states like Texas - doesn't matter if there's, quote-unquote, "consent" of the victim. It doesn't matter, but other places, it does. The other is we have 44 state laws out there on hazing, but some are very, very weak. And Ohio's is weak now, but they're trying to strengthen it after a death at Ohio University and now Bowling Green.

CORNISH: It's pretty clear the pandemic had an effect on all this, right? Because kids weren't around, they weren't on campus, and therefore there were zero deaths reported. Now that campuses are bringing students back, what do you expect to see?

NUWER: Well, what I'm seeing is, in effect, we have two freshman classes in that the sophomores have been taking online classes. Now they're going to be out there, and they haven't had any hazing or alcohol education programs. They're coming out there with a gusto because now they're the people of status who have power over these pledges. And then the regular freshman class is coming in all excited, as usual. And we've seen so many times where a death occurs in the first couple of days of the students on campus, sometimes before they've taken a single class.

CORNISH: We've been talking about this issue for years. What are some of the challenges that have really made it difficult to try and end fraternity hazing?

NUWER: Well, in my opinion, campuses are the perfect storm for something like this because we're all about status and power. All of these obstacles have led to today when alcohol has been added to the mix. There wasn't a single death from alcohol before 1940, now it's one of the most major. There were 62 deaths from 2009 to 2021. Thirty-nine were alcohol related.

CORNISH: Finally, is this an opportunity for a reset for some of these campuses, some of these schools and universities? And what would that look like, especially given the constraints of the pandemic?

NUWER: OK. I want a hard approach. You have to go after the alumni who are encouraging this. You have to punish all of the hazing, not temporarily. This is - this tradition has to stop, and it can't be looked at as tradition as Mr. Dodson, the prosecutor, is doing in the Stone Foltz case. You have to prosecute to the fullest extent.

CORNISH: That was Hank Nuwer, an emeritus professor of journalism at Franklin College.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

NUWER: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.