Ending hazing starts with accountability and transparency

Judith Zaffirini

In the immortal words of Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Unfortunately, too many good men and women do nothing to reduce or eliminate hazing. Some equate the practice with harmless pranks while others consider it simply part of joining a group. Alumni often encourage hazing and justify it as an acceptable rite of passage. It is not.

Hazing is not a Texan problem. It exists throughout our country. Nor is it merely a fraternity or sorority problem. It exists in the military, extracurricular activities, sports teams, musical groups and honor societies — sometimes with adult “supervision.”

There are countless stories about sadistic ways some students make others prove themselves “worthy.” Nicky Cumberland, a UT student who died in a car crash after being hazed at a Texas Cowboys retreat, bore paddle marks more than a month later. Some Louisiana State University students were forced to lie on broken glass while others urinated on them. Such cruelty often results in long-term physical and emotional damage and, too often, death.

Hazing is not about bonding, team building or proving worthiness. It is about power. If hazing were about camaraderie, it would not have to be kept secret. If it was composed of harmless pranks, student death tolls would not continue to rise.

Senators recently heard testimony recounting a hazing ritual during which students poured concrete cleaner on their pledges. How, I thought, could otherwise “normal” persons perpetrate such barbarity? Sadly, I am certain they thought it was acceptable and knew they could get away with it.

They might be right. Although the Texas Legislature made hazing illegal in 1995, the offense rarely has been prosecuted — and never successfully. At least 11 Texas students have died from hazing or in hazing-related incidents since then, and countless others have suffered long-term physical, psychological or emotional harm. One can only imagine the multiplier effect of their suffering among their loved ones.

Determined to ensure no more students die because of hazing, I recently filed Senate Bill 38, my fifth attempt to reform our state’s hazing statutes. Co-authored by Senators Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, Joan Huffman, R-Houston, Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and John Whitmire, D-Houston, the bill facilitates prosecution of hazing. It reflects my belief that those who haze should be held accountable under laws that will be enforced fairly, timely and appropriately.

Equally important, SB 38 requires our universities to be more transparent. Students should be fully informed while considering membership in an organization that has a history of hazing, and our institutions should demonstrate their commitment to ending hazing through words and actions.

Our legislation will not end hazing. The practice has deep cultural roots and fierce protectors. Its eradication will require a collective effort by students, parents, alumni, faculty, administrators, legislators, law enforcement and the judiciary.

It will require us to speak loudly and frankly about what happens in student organizations, not in the hushed tones and anonymity that let this dangerous practice fester.

It will require breaking the unwritten code of silence that stifles dissent and empowers the sadistic few who willingly imperil their would-be friends.

It will require our colleges and universities place student safety above politics when they address hazing offenses, and, yes, it likely will require us to send some young persons to jail.

I write this today only because I believe strongly in the urgency of this moment. Texas has lost three young men to hazing in the last two years. This is our opportunity not only to avert future tragedies, but also to be leaders in the national movement to eradicate hazing. I hope you will join us in this important effort.

Senator Judith Zaffirini, Ph.D., is the second-highest ranking senator and the first Mexican American woman elected to the Texas Senate. She holds B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from The University of Texas at Austin, where she was named a UT Distinguished Alumna in 2003, awarded the Presidential Citation in 2013, named an Outstanding Alumna Award in 2016, and inducted into The Daily Texan’s Hall of Fame in 2016.