ATHENS — Fraternity brothers at Ohio University whipped their pledges with belts, pelted them with eggs and forced them to chug a large bottle of vodka in less than an hour at what was called “Blackout Monday.”
A pledge at Miami University reported to the school that he was blindfolded and beaten with a spiked paddle that caused cuts and bruising.
A parent detailed how fraternity brothers at Ohio State University slipped drugs into their pledges’ drinks to make them “freak out, vomit and make fools of themselves.”
Universities took action against the fraternities, including suspending or expelling the organizations. But despite a law enacted in 1983 making hazing a fourth-degree misdemeanor in Ohio, no one has been criminally charged in any of the cases.
A Columbus Dispatch examination of records dating back at least 25 years in the municipal courts located near Ohio’s largest universities found only five hazing charges.
This includes city and county municipal courts where hazing charges might be filed against students attending Ohio State University, Ohio University, Miami University, University of Cincinnati, Xavier University, University of Dayton, Wright State University, Cleveland State University, Kent State University, University of Akron, Bowling Green State University, University of Toledo, Youngstown State University and several other smaller colleges located in those jurisdictions.
There were two hazing charges in Bowling Green, in 1988 and 2008, one in Cleveland in 2006, one in Athens in 2009 and one in Akron in 2014. No hazing charges are on record in Franklin County Municipal Court in Columbus.
“You have students being assaulted, embarrassed, shamed and, in some cases, dying in these hazing rituals, but most of the time they aren’t facing criminal consequences in Ohio or around the country,” said Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana, near Indianapolis. He tracks hazing deaths and is author of the book “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives.”
“The problem is the culture, and unless these frats are afraid they will be abolished or some of them might go to jail, it won’t change,” Nuwer said.
Ohio’s hazing law makes it a crime to participate or coerce someone else to participate in “any act of initiation into any student or other organization that causes substantial risk of causing mental or physical harm to any person.”
Some charges could be expunged from the record. Juvenile charges would not appear in municipal court. If the offense is serious, the suspect could be charged with a more serious crime including assault.
But police, prosecutors, university officials and hazing experts confirmed that most of the time, hazing suspects face no criminal charges. Criminal incidents often are not reported to authorities. When hazing is reported, the victim or witnesses often are reluctant to come forward, making it difficult to charge anyone.
Hazing incidents on Ohio campuses have regularly made headlines, including the Nov. 12 death of Ohio University freshman Collin Wiant. On April 30, OU expelled the Epsilon chapter of the Sigma Pi fraternity following the death of the 18-year-old freshman from Dublin.
Wiant died of asphyxiation due to nitrous oxide ingestion, according to a toxicology report. He was found surrounded by drug paraphernalia, including canisters of nitrous oxide, also known as “whippets.”
His parents allege in a lawsuit filed in Athens County Common Pleas Court in February against Sigma Pi that Wiant was repeatedly hazed by Sigma Pi fraternity brothers. The Dispatch made multiple attempts to reach Sigma Pi officials after its OU chapter was expelled and again for this story, but messages were not returned.
Ohio State and Miami post disciplinary history for their fraternities and sororities from the past five years on their university Greek life websites. A handful of other colleges post names of chapters that are currently under probation or suspension.
Ohio State suspended all 37 fraternities governed by the Interfraternity Council in November 2017, citing a high number of fraternities under investigation for conduct violations. Most of the 37 fraternities were cleared to resume normal activities within a few months.
Ohio State’s list of Greek disciplinary history shows there were at least 16 other hazing violations among Greek chapters at Ohio State over the past five years. Of those, five resulted in chapter suspensions with the rest ending in probation.
Miami reported 18 hazing violations since 2014, of which four resulted in suspensions. The other violations resulted in disciplinary or social probation.
Of the five chapters currently under discipline at the University of Cincinnati, two were found to have violated university hazing rules.
Still, there is no record of anyone being criminally charged in those incidents.
Finding out why
Hazing experts including Huwer say universities are not referring the hazing allegations to local police.
Columbus police Deputy Chief Jennifer Knight said her department has an excellent relationship with Ohio State police, but no one within her unit, which has jurisdiction over OSU campus neighborhoods, can recall a single hazing incident being reported by the university in recent years.
“We are not seeing hazing offenses reported to us,” Knight said. “And we need to find out why that’s not happening. If it’s not happening, I’m willing to sit down and talk and find out why.”
Ohio State student conduct officials are in regular communication with Ohio State police about conduct violations from the time an initial hazing report is filed, said Kelly Smith, director of student conduct at Ohio State.
When Ohio State finds that an organization has violated its hazing policies off-campus, she said, the university notifies its Ohio State police joint patrol officer, who is paired with a Columbus police officer to patrol the off-campus University District neighborhoods east of High Street, and the incident is reported to Columbus police.
Ohio State’s Smith said she doesn’t know why Columbus police wouldn’t have received reports of hazing at Ohio State, but she would be eager to have conversations with Columbus police about improving the process.
About half of the 11 fraternities under investigation when Ohio State imposed its blanket suspension in 2017 were being investigated for violating university hazing rules.
Why didn’t any of those hazing incidents — in which the university itself deemed its own hazing rules were violated — result in criminal misdemeanor charges?
“I don’t know,” Smith said.
Columbus City Prosecutor Zach Klein said law enforcement shouldn’t be learning of misconduct and criminal hazing activity through the media.
“I think those headlines would be a litmus test for the quality of communication between a university and law enforcement,” Klein said. “When there are those headlines, we need to take that seriously and work with the proper officials and channels to make sure those individuals are held accountable.”
When officials for Miami University receive an allegation of hazing, they conduct their own investigation and forward the complaint to the Oxford Police Department.
Oxford Police Chief John Jones confirmed that his department does receive numerous hazing complaints from Miami University, especially during the weeks fraternities and sororities are initiating pledges.
But the complaints are mostly anonymous, and victims and witnesses often are not willing to come forward because they fear being kicked out of the Greek system or face retribution from other students.
Jones said his officers will follow up on the complaints by knocking on the doors of the fraternity and sororities, but rarely does anyone provide information.
“I can’t put handcuffs on a fraternity house,” Johns said. “I need to find the person responsible. We need a victim to come forward. At Miami and other universities conducting internal investigations, they don’t have to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt. We do.”
Jayne Brownell, vice president of student affairs at Miami, said the university started an anti-hazing campaign three years ago that includes having students take an online course before they even start the Greek recruiting process.
She said that’s resulted in an increase in hazing allegations.
“The vast majority of the Greek organizations have taken great strides to implement safeguards to prevent hazing,” she said. “But there are a few chapters that have adopted this hazing culture and we are doing whatever we can to eliminate it.”
Ohio State officials face the same difficulties in investigating hazing allegations and have taken steps to prevent hazing and make it easier for students to come forward. Ohio State also added language to its student conduct code earlier this year indicating “failure to intervene, prevent or report acts of hazing” may also constitute a violation.
When Ohio University receives a hazing allegation, administrators first send the complaints to university police for review. If the hazing allegation is a potential criminal offense, OU police Chief Andrew Powers said he refers the allegations to Athens police. He has forwarded two cases to Athens police in recent years, but in both cases the victims and witnesses didn’t cooperate.
Some prosecutors and police officials in Ohio said hazing should be a felony, as is the case in at least 10 states.
“The serious misconduct we are seeing certainly doesn’t match the misdemeanor charge,” said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a supporter of making hazing a felony.
Both Powers and Athens police Chief Tom Pyle, whose department has jurisdiction over the off-campus Greek houses at OU, said the law should be changed to a felony and the standards for prosecuting a hazing case should be made easier for law enforcement. They also agree that making hazing law tougher could help prevent some of the serious incidents seen in Greek life and beyond across the country.
At the same time, federal lawmakers want to require universities to report hazing incidents that occur on their campuses as part of their annual crime reporting.
The Report and Educate About Campus Hazing (REACH) Act would require hazing incidents to be reported as part of colleges’ annual safety reports already required of schools receiving federal funding. The legislation, introduced earlier this year, is co-sponsored by Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio in the U.S. Senate and Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Cleveland Democrat, in the House.
“The potential for harm is very high with hazing,” said the Columbus police’s Knight. “These are our children and they are off at college and trying to belong to these elite organizations and are willing to engage in this behavior to belong. By making hazing a potential felony you are telling them this behavior will have real consequences.”