Increase the Penalties for Hazing and End the Culture That Took My Son’s Life

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The Seattle Times | Feb. 24, 2023

By Jolayne Houtz

Sam’s soccer jerseys still hang in a neat row in his closet. The silver jacket he wore to his senior prom is there, too, along with his sports trophies, a Lego pirate ship he built, a teddy bear he named Applesauce.

Sam’s room remains frozen in time since that terrible day in 2019 when he was found dead of alcohol poisoning following a Washington State University fraternity hazing ritual. In many ways, our family is frozen, too, even as we look for ways to make purpose out of our pain.

Our family is channeling our grief into the one good thing that might come from our tragedy: The chance to save someone else’s child from hazing.

We are supporting House Bill 1002, now under consideration by the Legislature. The bill, known as the Sam Martinez Stop Hazing Law, would increase the penalties for hazing from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. In cases where someone is seriously injured or killed, hazing would be a class C felony. The bill is championed by Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, and 11 co-sponsors.

Hazing culture persists on Washington college campuses. Police are currently investigating another WSU student death in mid-January as potentially hazing-related, and Eastern Washington University recently withdrew recognition of one of its fraternities for hazing its pledges last fall.

Some state lawmakers appear reluctant to add a new felony to the criminal code, asking whether hazing could instead be charged as an existing felony, such as assault or manslaughter.

But the fact is that hazing cases are rarely charged at all and are too often dismissed with a “boys will be boys” attitude.

Making hazing a felony on its own sends a clear message to fraternities and the universities that promote them that they must crack down on the bad actors in the Greek system.

Last fall, I was invited by the Interfraternity Council at the University of Washington to speak to its members about hazing. I stood on a stage and shared Sam’s story with 700 members and new pledges. The young men were attentive, respectful and totally silent.

At the end, I asked if anyone had questions. One young man finally raised his hand: What happened to the fraternity members who were charged in connection with Sam’s death?

The honest answer is: Nothing. Not one of the 15 young men charged faced meaningful consequences.

Sam’s death was the culmination of weeks of hazing by members of Alpha Tau Omega (ATO), the fraternity Sam was pledging. We now know that Sam and other pledges were punched, tackled, verbally abused, and forced to do calisthenics, eat raw onions, drink hot sauce and more as part of their initiation.

Data uncovered by our legal team show that the ATO chapter had a history of hazing, alcohol, drug and misconduct violations dating back to at least 2013. In the six years before Sam was killed, there were dozens of instances when authorities from WSU, the Pullman Police Department or ATO’s national office intervened at the chapter for a range of misconduct allegations ranging from noise violations to assault, rape and hazing. Most cases ended with a warning to those involved. A few cases were investigated and closed because of insufficient evidence.

Emails and other correspondence show that WSU knew this at the highest leadership levels.

ATO’s national president, Wynn Smiley, and other fraternity leaders were so concerned about the WSU chapter that they conducted a membership review, including unannounced drug tests, and kicked out more than half of the members in 2018.

Yet WSU and ATO continued to allow the chapter to recruit new members, including Sam, without disclosing the chapter’s history or the risks new recruits faced.

Within hours of Sam’s death, the chapter president was on the phone with ATO headquarters. At ATO’s direction, he and others deleted the chapter’s social media accounts, according to a police report and a deposition of a former ATO officer at the local chapter. During police interviews, most members repeated the same phrase over and over: There was no forced drinking. At sentencing, Whitman County District Court Judge John Hart said it appeared that members had been trained on what to say to help insulate the fraternity from liability.

Our experience with the legal system following Sam’s death has compounded our pain.

In Washington, hazing is the legal equivalent of stealing a shopping cart. In Sam’s case, the one-year statute of limitations for hazing had already passed following a 14-month police investigation.

Prosecutors instead charged 15 fraternity members with furnishing alcohol to a minor, a gross misdemeanor. Most served just one day of community service.

Sam’s so-called “big brother” — the one who gave Sam a half-gallon bottle of rum that night and told him to “drink the family drink” — received just 19 days in jail. That’s one day for each year of Sam’s life.

What is the message our state sends when a young man is killed, and the consequences are so laughable?

More than 750 people joined us to register their support for House Bill 1002 before the bill’s first hearing in January. You can help us keep the momentum going by contacting your representatives in Olympia to ask for their yes vote on the bill.

Increasing the penalties for hazing is key, but it will take more to end hazing for good.

We must ensure that incoming students, their parents and other adults around them receive training to recognize, prevent and report hazing. We took steps toward this last year when the Legislature passed Sam’s Law, which expanded the definition of hazing, requires hazing education for new students and university employees, and requires colleges and universities to publicly report details about hazing violations as well as drug and alcohol violations, sexual assaults and physical assaults.

We must also demand greater transparency from universities and the Greek system about hazing incidents.

We are working with a student-led capstone team at the UW Information School to create a free database of all documented hazing incidents on U.S. college campuses. If we had known the facts about ATO, Sam would never have joined. Incoming college students and their families need accurate information to make smart choices about the organizations recruiting them.

In ATO’s case, WSU continued to actively promote, protect and profit from the fraternity, even as evidence of member misconduct mounted.

For example, in 2013, WSU investigated a report that ATO pledges were forced to clean up raw sewage and take a late-night run that ended with heavy drinking. WSU’s conduct board found that ATO had hazed its pledges and violated policies on alcohol use. They recommended a one-year loss of recognition.

The chapter appealed, arguing that the sanction would “cost ATO nearly $200,000 in the first year” from lost rent and would harm the reputation of ATO, resulting in “another empty building on Greek Row.” WSU’s Appeals Board upheld the sanction, but WSU’s then-president, Elson Floyd, reversed the decision and gave the chapter eight months’ probation, allowing them to continue recruiting members.

Donations to the WSU Foundation from the ATO chapter’s alumni increased from $279,760 in 2013 to $646,280 in 2014, according to a subpoena issued to the foundation during discovery. Between 2009 and 2019, ATO local-chapter alumni donated more than $3.7 million to WSU and the WSU Foundation.

WSU continued to share the contact information of incoming freshmen with ATO and other fraternities so they could start recruiting pledges before school even began.

Shockingly, WSU argues that it has no legal obligation to protect its students from harm when hazing or other violations occur off-campus. Its attorneys argued in the state Court of Appeals recently that WSU has no special duty under the law to ensure the safety of even its freshmen students at the fraternity houses in Greek Row or at off-campus events sponsored by WSU-recognized fraternities. Our lawsuit against WSU for its role in Sam’s death is pending before the court.

Sam should be graduating from college this spring. Instead, our family is paying the ultimate price for WSU’s lack of transparency and an outdated criminal code that equates hazing with unlawful dumping.

To end hazing, we must hold to account those who haze and bully our young people.

For truly lasting change, we must compel colleges and universities to come clean about the chronic bad actors in their Greek systems, end their parasitic relationships with them and enforce their own zero-tolerance policies against hazing.

Jolayne Houtz is a former Seattle Times reporter who lives in Bellevue with her husband, Hector Martinez.

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