Hazing In Oklahoma
It seems to me more and more that kids are having bullying problems at school. I’ve noticed in general that there has been a decline in common courtesy to one another since the pandemic begun. I don’t know if isolating ourselves has made it worse or if all the stress of life in a pandemic has made things harder but I’ve noticed people just seem to lose it more lately.
Oklahoma has many laws which address bullying in school. One of the most traditional “bullying” behaviors we think about is hazing. Hazing is a considered a criminal misdemeanor act punishable by up to 90 days in the county jail and a $500 fine if committed by an individual or a $1500 fine and loss of privileges of an organization or school for the period of one year if committed by a school or origination. Hazing is defined as “activity which recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental health or physical health or safety of a student for the purpose of initiation or admission into or affiliation with an” organization or school. Endangering physical health encompasses such things as brutal physical activities, forced consumption of food, alcohol or drugs. Endangering the mental health involves subjecting an individual to extreme mental stress such as prolong sleep deprivation, exclusion from social contact, extreme embarrassment or other behavior which would effect the mental health of the individual. Hazing can also confer civil liability on the parties involved if someone gets hurt.
When we typically think of hazing it is in regard to admissions to fraternities and sororities. It can also be related to gaining membership to a sports team or other group. Not long ago many of these behaviors were normalized as just part of the process but over time society has evolved to see the dangerousness of this behavior. Especially in a group setting, something that starts out without a mean intent can quickly devolve into something else.
As a practicing attorney I have been involved in 2 hazing suits. The first involved a young man in a fraternity who alleged he was hazed as part of the initiation into his fraternity. The second involved admission to a sports team in high school. Neither of these situations was good and both resulted in physical and mental injury.
The young man was a freshman at OSU and pledging a fraternity. OSU has one of the largest homecoming celebrations and touts its even as “America’s Greatest Homecoming Celebration.” One of the things it is well known for is the elaborate house decorations that are constructed each year by the fraternities and sororities.
The house decorations involve welding a large metal structure together that is assembled on the lawn of the fraternity houses. Then the structure is covered with screens of chicken wire and “pomped” with tissue paper. It is the job of freshman pledges to spend hours and hours stuffing little squares of tissue paper into the chicken wires holes to make the designs come to life. After homecoming is over these massive structures have to be torn down and put away for next year.
In this case, the young man was allegedly instructed by one of his pledge brothers to go out and take down the house decorations at dusk without proper lighting. The young man alleged that he was given no choice and was forced to do it without proper lighting and equipment. Prior to the young man starting his work, someone else with the fraternity had cut or loosened the welds so that the structure was easier to disassemble. While he was working on the deconstruction a weld from somewhere near the top of the structure broke causing a metal pole to fall and strike him on the head. He ended up having a significant head injury and there was some debate about whether he suffered permanent damage.
No one was ever prosecuted criminally over the homecoming case but there was a lawsuit brought by the young man against the fraternity and the partner sorority. My job was to represent the sorority. Even though the sorority wasn’t involved with the act of telling the man to disassemble the house decoration, was not present when the actions occurred, and the structure was not on their property, they were sued because it was a joint endeavor. There was an attempt to place liability on both of them. The hazing aspect of it was used to argue that it was not just an ordinary negligence case but the kind of case that justified imposing punitive damages. Ultimately the case resolved but it was very instructive on how what on the surface may seem to be harmless activity can have serious long term consequences and that the behavior we’ve come to accept as normal may not be ok.
I handled this case very early on in my career as a corporate defense attorney. It is an example of the many ways that cases involving children and juveniles have been a part of my practice from early on. While the case discussed herein involved a college student, it could just as easily involved a high school student as my other hazing case did. The practice of “juvenile law” is not limited to guardianships, deprived or delinquent proceedings or adoptions. There are special rules that apply to representing children and their families in every area of law in Oklahoma. As a practicing trial attorney I have been involved in these kinds of case from the beginning of my career and will bring this wealth of knowledge and experience with me to the bench.