College Hazing: Where Traditions Clash with Criminal Law

graduation-1311237[1]On September 2015, prosecutors in Monroe County, Pennsylvania released the gruesome details of a college hazing of a Baruch college student. The release of the grand jury transcript reveals a pledge member, Chun Hsien Deng, of the Baruch’s Delta Psi chapter, an Asian American cultural fraternity, was made to wear a blindfold and a 30 pound backpack along with other would-be fraternity members during a pledging in Pennsylvania. Deng, along with other pledge members, were then forced to run “the Gauntlet,” wherein members of the fraternity would form two lines and have the new pledges run down it while being struck by members on both sides. Deng reportedly received the severest of beatings and suffered blunt trauma injuries as the pledging escalated. He ultimately died of those injuries. Fraternity members then attempted to hide and destroy evidence. Five Baruch college students now face murder charges.

Hazing is nothing new to fraternities whose presence in our collegiate system has persisted for generations. One can think back to the classic film Animal House and a young Kevin Bacon saying, “Thank you, sir. May I have another. ” as he was struck with a paddle on his bottom by another fraternity member. It is a funny, ionic scene in a movie that many of us associate with the wilds of fraternity life. Unlike the films, the reality of college hazing is becoming less comedic and more deadly as fraternity hazing rituals are increasingly abutting against our criminal laws in every state. The initiation rituals which can be  initially petty can spiral out of control leading to death or serious injury once they are fueled by alcohol and teenage zeal, such as it appears in the Baruch incident.

From a criminal defense prospective, young college students can easily subject themselves to charges of assault, manslaughter, and murder. Moreover, depending on the type of humiliation engrained in the hazing, the fraternity members can even be charged with sexual assault. These crimes carry serious penalties and jail time. To a young man who exercised a momentary lapse in judgment influenced by either peer pressure or an alcoholic binge, the reverberations can be felt for the rest of his life. The most common response after such tragic events occur is “I never thought it would go that far.” Despite the initial outrage that surfaces every year among colleges, incidents like this reoccur.

A good step in preventing such incidents reoccurring is to have fraternities clear and approve their rituals with college officials. In addition, colleges should consider retaining a local criminal defense attorney to give a lecture to pledge members about criminal laws and the penal consequences of various offenses. Additionally, a criminal defense attorney could also be kept on retainer for use by students and school officials to consult with as to the appropriateness of their pledging practices. Colleges tend to have taken a backseat to the administration and oversight of their fraternities, so that when the fraternity is sued they can insulate their liability, holding that the fraternity is an independent entity acting through its own volition. Nonetheless, reality mandates that the colleges take better measures to protect its students.

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