Legislators wary of making hazing a felony

LARAMIE — Creating a standardized definition of hazing across all Wyoming schools would be the most important thing for the Wyoming Legislature to do in an anti-hazing bill, representatives from the University of Wyoming’s administration and student body told the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee on Friday.

A better understanding of what hazing is at the high school level and earlier could make it less likely that students engage in hazing at college, said Riley Talamantes, president of the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming.

“Hazing has not been an issue at the University of Wyoming, but it has been occurring more and more in Wyoming high schools,” Talamantes said. “It’s a lot better to get in front of the issue rather than having to wait and be reactive on it.”

A 2019 study found that 26% of students have been hazed at college across the country, said Kimberly Chestnut, the University’s Vice President for Student Affairs. Although UW does not have data about hazing on its campus, Chestnut said the numbers on campus are probably similar to other universities.

The committee discussed the anti-hazing bill sponsored in the 2020 budget session by Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, which the Wyoming House rejected in a procedural vote in February.

That bill would have made hazing a felony punishable with five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, if it led to “serious bodily injury” or death. Someone’s consent to the activities would not be available as a defense for those charged with hazing.

Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, worried that efforts to criminalize hazing could inadvertently go too far and limit fun bonding activities that do not pose a threat to safety.

“I was in a sorority years ago — we would eat silly things just to make each other laugh,” Ellis said. “I just worry about creating felonies over daring someone to eat a spoonful of ranch dressing with a Splenda packet on top.”

The possible creation of a new felony for hazing concerned a number of the committee’s members.

“I don’t think the felony is the right approach,” said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. Rothfuss noted that student leaders at UW had reached out to his office to work on anti-hazing legislation, but that Stith’s bill was not informed by those discussions.

UW’s student government and Greek letter organizations opposed Stith’s bill, they wrote to the committee before the hearing. They hoped for the Legislature to discuss the issue now and then to introduce a revised bill in the 2021 legislative session.

“Focus should be on the uniform definition and prevention of hazing, rather than the punishment,” the groups wrote. “We recommend the inclusion of educational and preventative measures within the aforementioned organizations in order to prevent hazing.”

Stith’s bill would require fraternities, sororities, and other student organizations to distribute copies of the law to all members, and high schools and universities would be required to provide copies of the law to student organizations. No further educational or preventive measures would be required.

UW already has a policy against hazing, according to documents that the university provided to the committee.

Hazing is defined by the university as “any intentional or unintentional act that would endanger the mental or physical health or safety of a student for the purpose of pledging or associating.” Examples include paddling, forced lack of sleep, forced consumption of alcohol or other substances, and “public stunts or buffoonery.”

When UW students are found to have hazed other students, they can face suspension and probation, and responsible student organizations can lose funding, Chestnut said.

School districts across the state prohibit hazing, although it is often covered under anti-bullying rules, said Brian Farmer, executive director of the Wyoming School Board Association. He suggested that a uniform definition of hazing could be added to existing anti-bullying laws to encourage anti-hazing education in public schools, rather than making a new law that applies to elementary and secondary schools.

Thirty-eight of Wyoming’s school districts responded to a survey about hazing from the association, and all of them said that their policies bar hazing. But a range of definitions are used across the state, and this can create confusion when students arrive at UW, Chestnut said. Education about a standardized definition of hazing at a younger age could improve behavior among college students.

The Joint Education Committee unanimously agreed to a motion, submitted by Rothfuss, to create a working group to draft anti-hazing solutions with representatives from the colleges, school districts, and the Legislative Service Office.