Rep. Patrick Meehan this week introduced legislation that for the first time would set a national definition of hazing, and require colleges and universities to report incidents annually and provide students with education about it.
Meehan, a Republican from Delaware County, joined Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat from Ohio, in putting forth the Report and Educate about Campus Hazing (REACH) Act.
In announcing the effort Friday, Meehan noted the case of Tim Piazza, 19, a Pennsylvania State University sophomore, who died after an alcohol-fueled fraternity pledge-night party where hazing is alleged. Members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity face charges, including hazing, in his death.
"Each year, college students across the country are subjected to dangerous incidents of hazing, the tragic death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza being just the latest example," Meehan said. "The first step in combating this problem is understanding just how prevalent it is on campuses. By requiring colleges and universities to report hazing as part of their annual crime reports, we can both better understand the extent of the problem, and encourage administrators to partner with students to reduce risky behavior."
Meehan said last month that he intended to introduce the legislation.
The effort immediately gained the backing of Penn State president Eric Barron, as well as leaders of national Greek organizations and the agency that advocates for better crime reporting on college campuses. Their statements were included in a news release sent out by Meehan and Fudge.
"Our support for this legislation aligns with our commitment to implement significant reforms as a leader in ensuring the safety and well-being of our students, and of the entire university community," Barron said in his statement.
The proposal also was endorsed by Tom Kline, the attorney for Piazza's parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza of Lebanon, N.J.
"We wholeheartedly support Rep. Meehan's bill and are grateful that he provided an opportunity for me and the Piazzas to provide input to him directly," Kline said. "With broad support from all quarters, this bill should have a pathway to passage by the Congress."
Piazza became drunk during an event where prosecutors allege he was forced to drink large amounts of alcohol quickly. He later fell down the stairs, and fraternity members did not call for help until nearly 12 hours later. In the interim, members slapped Piazza, poured liquid on him and sat on him. He died Feb. 2 of a non-recoverable head injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung.
Campuses throughout the nation and the region – including Lehigh University, Penn State, the University of Delaware, the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Rider University – have had to cope with incidents of hazing.
In a national 2008 study of more than 11,000 college students, 55 percent of those involved in clubs, teams, and organizations said they experienced hazing, and in 95 percent of the cases, students did not report it.
The legislation would set a national definition of hazing as "any intentional, knowing or reckless act committed by a student, or a former student, whether individually or in concert with other persons, against another student, and in which both of the following apply: The act was committed in connection with an initiation into, an affiliation with or the maintenance of membership in any organization that is affiliated with such educational institution. The act contributes to a substantial risk of potential physical injury, mental harm or degradation or causes physical injury, mental harm or personal degradation."
Colleges would have to list incidents in their annual security report required under the federal Clery Act, as well as statistics on referrals for discipline and arrests specific to hazing, and implement a "hazing education program" for students.
"The inclusion of hazing in the Clery Act is overdue, and will include a clear definition and guidelines for campuses and contribute to improved safety," said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, which advocates for better campus crime reporting.
Judson Horras, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, said his group supports the legislation because it focused on "proactive education, transparency, and accountability around standards."
"NIC member fraternities stand united in providing positive, hazing-free, meaningful rites of passage that strengthen and develop young men, and we commend cosponsors Reps. Meehan and Fudge for their leadership in facing this problem," he said in a statement.
Fudge called hazing a "persistent and dangerous problem on campuses around the country."
"We cannot act only after an unfortunate incident occurs," she said. "We need a strategy that will address hazing at its core. Accurate college reporting will provide the data we need to develop legislative solutions for administrators and faculty, and protect our nation's college students."
Gary and Julie DeVercelly, whose son Gary Jr. died in 2007 after a hazing incident at Rider, also praised the legislative effort, one they have gone to Washington to advocate.
"For too long, too many sons and daughters have been harmed or have died from hazing," the couple said in a statement. "Through accountability, transparency, and education, this bill will transform the hazing culture."