Whatever else Ohio University students learn this year, one of the most important lessons was delivered lasat week by Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn in the form of nine indictments.
Blackburn’s willingness to take evidence to a grand jury in the death last year of Collin Wiant in a fraternity’s unofficial off-campus house has the potential to teach many more than just the members of Sigma Pi fraternity that hazing must stop.
Certainly nothing else has sufficiently gotten the attention of countless fraternity, sorority and non-Greek organizations on college campuses from coast to coast. Too many don’t see that allowing and even encouraging risky behavior as a pathway to coveted brotherhood or sisterhood is dangerous and can no longer be tolerated.
In last week’s indictments, seven members of the now-expelled fraternity and two others were charged with various crimes related to Wiant’s death. The charges range from involuntary manslaughter and reckless homicide to drug charges and hazing.
No one goes to college to get a criminal record along with a diploma, or worse yet, to end up in prison without a degree. But maybe it will take a few students suffering that outcome to prevent more senseless deaths.
Wiant, 18, of Dublin, was a freshman pledge of OU’s Epsilon chapter of Sigma Pi when he collapsed on the floor of the fraternity “annex” on Nov. 12, 2018. His cause of death was ruled to be asphyxiation due to nitrous oxide ingestion after inhaling a canister of gas, also known as a whippit.
Slowly but thankfully, the tide may be turning to use the criminal justice system to try to stem the behavior that has resulted in too many deaths on college campuses across the country — at least 80 in the past 15 years, according to Hank Nuwer, a Franklin, Indiana, college professor who tracks fatal hazing incidents.
A Dispatch investigation in May found only five hazing charges in the past 25 years had been filed in municipal courts near the state’s largest universities.
Since then, 18 members of Delta Tau Delta fraternity at Miami University were indicted in early October on charges of assault and hazing related to a March incidentd. A student had filed a complaint about paddling that caused lacerations and bruises with pledges also being forced to consume large amounts of alcohol and marijuana, causing the university to suspend Delta Tau Delta for 10 years.
Assault is a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in jail but hazing is still a misdemeanor, as it has been since 1983, although 11 other states have made it a felony crime.
Hazing now is punishable by a fine of up to $250 and up to 30 days in jail. If it were raised to a fourth-degree felony, as Gov. Mike DeWine has advocated, the maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and 18 months in prison surely would get the attention of those who have so far just winked at the potential consequences.
Such shameful tactics as physically assaulting and emotionally shaming students who want to be accepted into any collegiate organization certainly is not the best pathway to creating healthy relationships for the long-term good of those groups, whether they are fraternities, sororities or marching bands.
In the meantime, it is appropriate for prosecutors to lead the way to changed behavior.
As Blackburn said in Athens, “What needs to happen with this case is a nationwide discussion about what we want to be.”
The question the prosecutor asked is worth repeating: “What are we going to do about the use of drugs here and everywhere else on college (campuses) and what are we going to demand out of these organizations like the one Collin Wiant wanted to be a part of?”
If collegiate institutions truly want to model often-stated values of leadership, service and character development, they should stop trying to mask poor behaviors behind codes of secrecy and focus instead on positive ways to bring new members into their ranks.