There were zero reported deaths from college hazing incidents in 2020, but as campuses reopen to students, there have already been two hazing-related deaths this year. Eight men face a range of charges, including involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, evidence tampering and failure to comply with underage alcohol laws, after Stone Foltz, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University, died on March 7 of alcohol poisoning.
At a news conference on April 29, Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson described the fraternity event in which initiates were told to drink 750 milliliters of hard alcohol — or about 40 shots, according to Hank Nuwer, author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives. Dobson said Foltz's death was "the result of a fatal level of alcohol intoxication during a hazing incident."
Experts like Nuwer are concerned that as students return to in-person learning and are eager to take part in "the college experience," more hazing-related deaths may be on the way.
"There seems to be a disconnect — not seeing that alcohol-related hazing can kill," he says.
Nuwer is a professor emeritus of journalism at Franklin College and the author of five books on hazing. He spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about how the Stone Foltz case could reshape hazing prosecution, how college campuses create a "perfect storm" for hazing and how to put an end to the practice, once and for all.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the legal history of prosecuting hazing
There've been charges all along, but often they get dropped or they're unsuccessful. I would consider this to be a landmark case because of the possibility of at least five years of imprisonment, if the prosecutor is successful.
We have 44 state laws out there on hazing, but some are very, very weak. And Ohio's is weak now, but they're trying to strengthen it after a death at Ohio University [in 2018] and now Bowling Green.
On what the return to college campuses means for hazing
What I'm seeing is, in effect, we have two freshmen classes in that the sophomores have been taking online classes. Now they're going to be out there, and they haven't had any hazing or alcohol education programs. They're coming out there with a gusto because now they're the people of status, who have power over these pledges. And then the regular freshman class is coming in, all excited as usual, and we've seen so many times where a death occurs within the first couple of days of the students on campus, sometimes before they've taken a single class.
On the challenges to end fraternity hazing
In my opinion, campuses are the perfect storm for something like this because we're all about status and power. All of these obstacles have led to today, when alcohol has been added to the mix. There wasn't a single alcohol death before 1940. Now, it's one of the most major [causes of hazing-related deaths]. There were 62 deaths from 2009 to 2021; 39 were alcohol related.
On whether this is a chance for colleges to reset this part of campus culture
I want a hard approach. You have to go after the alumni who are encouraging this. You have to punish all of the hazing — not temporarily. This tradition has to stop, and it can't be looked at as tradition. As Mr. [Paul] Dobson, the prosecutor, is doing in the Stone Foltz case: You have to prosecute to the fullest extent [of the law].