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Fraternities have been a presence on college campuses for over 100 years with a number of high schools having them as well. Fraternities and sororities began as gender-based organizations dedicated to the social and cultural development of their student members. They try to attract students with similar goals and interests using nondiscriminatory criteria. Many of these organizations participate in community activities that include working with low-income residents and the elderly, or assisting elementary and high school students with their class work. These clubs are given Greek names and have national offices that oversee chapters established in colleges and universities across the country.
Some fraternities are geared toward primarily a single interest or academic discipline such as athletics, engineering, scientific goals, community service and others. Many members remain friends or associates for life. On campus, students often refer to these organizations as the Greeks.
To most people, fraternities are viewed as social clubs where students gather for meals, sleeping quarters for many of the members and for parties and intramural sporting activities. Many fraternity and sorority members use memberships for networking before and after graduation to advance their careers or to find employment opportunities.
While fraternities and sororities attract a number of students, some of these organizations do screen out undesirables or those whose personalities or interests are incompatible with the frat’s purposes or with its core members. For those who are accepted and who wish to join, called “pledges,” there is often an initiation ceremony or rite that the pledges must endure before being accepted.
These rites are referred to as “hazing” though Texas law has defined the term to include particular acts that pose a danger to a student’s safety, health or life.
Many hazing or initiation activities are harmless. Pledges may have to act as butlers for members, prepare and serve meals, clean the fraternity or sorority house, engage in certain community activities, memorize long passages and recite them before the members, or perform some relatively difficult physical exercise with safeguards if a student exhibits some difficulty.
Unfortunately, there have been numerous instances where the required rites have been excessive, unlawful, cruel or dangerous, resulting in serious physical and mental damage as well as death to the pledges.
Texas, like most other states, has outlawed hazing by legislation and has defined the term to include conduct deemed detrimental to a person’s safety, physical health or mental health.
Individuals who engage in forcing pledges to undergo certain acts can be found criminally liable under Texas law. The Texas hazing statute defines hazing as:
“An intentional and knowing act, occurring on or off the campus of an educational institution, by one person alone or acting with others, directed against a student that endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student for the purpose of pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, holding office in or maintaining membership in any organization whose members are students at an educational institution …”
The Texas statute lists hazing activities that are prohibited under the law. These include:
The following are some examples of actual hazing practices that either led to serious injury, emotional trauma or death:
These hazing incidents have led to either fatalities or catastrophic injuries, including traumatic brain injuries, paralysis, organ failure, disfigurement and severe psychological trauma, including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
Fraternities and sororities must possess liability insurance as part of their being permitted to have a charter on campus.
Under Texas law, any person with knowledge of the planning of a specific hazing incident, or firsthand knowledge that it has occurred and knowingly fails to report it to the school’s dean of students is guilty of a misdemeanor. Anyone who participates in the incident or encourages it or intentionally allows it to take place is also criminally liable.
These acts can also lead to civil liability not only for the fraternity or sorority but also for the college or university. To hold the institution civilly culpable, you have to demonstrate:
Most if not all colleges ban dangerous hazing activities. By having an anti-hazing policy, a duty is created for educational institutions to limit or ban such activity by taking reasonable measures. This may consist of periodic visits to fraternities and sororities, attending initiation rites, conducting training sessions or similar discussions with members and holding individuals and their entire frat or sorority house accountable by expelling students and terminating or suspending charters.
Though Texas has a tough law on hazing, the practice continues on college and high school campuses with school officials aware of the practice but not taking reasonable steps to curb or ban the practices. If you or a loved one suffered serious bodily harm, emotional trauma or the death of a loved one from a fraternity or sorority hazing incident, contact Byrd Davis Alden & Henrichson, LLP, at 512-593-7650 to arrange for a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our Austin accident attorneys offer consultations.
Find out more information about the lawsuit filed for parents of Tyler Cross, who died after being hazed as a pledge by Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Texas.