Last week, you may have noticed an influx of media reports on incidents of hazing disclosed by colleges and universities throughout Pennsylvania. These disclosures were made pursuant the Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law, signed into law by Governor Tom Wolf in October of 2018.
The law is an amendment to the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, it replaces existing Anti-Hazing Law found in the Pennsylvania Public School Code and represents a significant expansion of Pennsylvania law. With this new legislation, Pennsylvania now has some of the strongest anti-hazing laws in the country.
While schools have long been required to adopt anti-hazing policies, these recent updates require that schools, which include public or private secondary schools (grades 7 through 12) as well as institutions of higher education (an institution authorized to grant an associate or higher academic degree), review existing policies, practices and procedures to ensure that they reflect the current state of the law.
Expanded Definition of Hazing
Most significantly, under the new anti-hazing law, the definition of “hazing” is expanded. “Hazing” is now defined as:
“. . . intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly, for the purpose of initiating, admitting or affiliating a minor or student into or with an organization, or for the purpose of continuing or enhancing a minor or student’s membership or status in an organization, causes, coerces or forces a minor or student to do any of the following:
(1) Violate Federal or State criminal law.
(2) Consume any food, liquid, alcoholic liquid, drug or other substance which subjects the minor or student to a risk of emotional or physical harm.
(3) Endure brutality of a physical nature, including whipping, beating, branding, calisthenics or exposure to the elements.
(4) Endure brutality of a mental nature, including activity adversely affecting the mental health or dignity of the individual, sleep deprivation, exclusion from social contact or conduct that could result in extreme embarrassment.
(5) Endure brutality of a sexual nature.
(6) Endure any other activity that creates a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury to the minor or student.
Portions of the expanded definition to highlight include incorporation of acts done “knowingly” and a “catch-all” for “any other activity that creates a reasonable likelihood of bodily injury”.
The new law also provides a definition of “organization”, that is, “a fraternity, sorority, association, corporation, order, society, corps, club or service, social or similar group, whose members are primarily minors, students or alumni of the organization, an institution [of higher education] or secondary school”. While not expressly included, this definition appears to incorporate sports teams. “Organization” is a term that was used in prior anti-hazing laws, but it was given no definition.
The prevalence of college and university reports of hazing this week is in response to mandatory reporting timelines established by the new anti-hazing law. Specifically, by January 15, 2019, institutions of higher education were required to post on its publically available website an initial report of all hazing violations reported within the past five (5) years. Following this initial report, all institutions of higher education are required maintain a report of all violations of its anti-hazing policy or Federal or State laws related to hazing that are reported to the institution and the report must be posted online by January 1st and August 1st of each year.
Notably, the new anti-hazing law expands the potential criminal liability for hazing. Organizations and institutions of higher education may now be subject to criminal culpability and fined for intentionally, knowingly or recklessly promoting or facilitating hazing or aggravated hazing.
Further, under prior law, charges of “hazing” were classified only as a misdemeanor of the third degree. Now, individuals who violate anti-hazing laws face charges of a summary offense or a third degree misdemeanor for less severe offenses, to the more serious third degree felony for offenses classified as “Aggravated Hazing”. “Aggravated Hazing” is hazing which results in serious bodily injury or death where “the person acts with reckless indifference” or “the person causes, coerces or forces the consumption of an alcoholic liquid or drug”.
Consent of an individual is not a defense to the offense of hazing, however, an important safe harbor provision in the law provides immunity for individuals who seek medical attention for another or for individuals who themselves need medical attention. It is also not a defense that hazing was sanctioned or approved by a secondary school or institution of higher education.
Bottom Line for Schools
While anti-hazing efforts in Pennsylvania are likely to be improved by this new legislation, it puts a greater onus on schools to determine what is “hazing” compared to what may be merely “bad” behavior. These efforts also appear to fall short of providing sufficient guidance to schools to ensure they are in compliance with the law. An obvious example of this comes from the reports released on January 15th in which the degree of detail issued varied greatly among schools. This is likely because while the law requires that incidents of hazing be reported, it provides minimal guidance on what must actually be disclosed in those reports.
Given the lack of clarity in the law and that it is newly enacted, schools must remain vigilant to monitor for guidance and updates from the State that may be forthcoming.
If your school has questions about its obligations and responsibilities and/or to ensure that your school has legally defensible policies, practices and procedures relating to anti-hazing efforts, it is advised that you contact your legal counsel or one of the attorneys at KingSpry.
This School Law Bullet is a publication of the KingSpry Education Law Practice Group. John E. Freund is our editor. It is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.