Hazing incidents at KU may have been an actual crime, but university doesn’t plan to turn findings over to law enforcement
It's also unclear whether individual students face punishment from KU
photo by: Nick Krug
One University of Kansas student had his head slammed against a fraternity room locker enough times that he received a concussion severe enough that he was ill for a week.
Another KU student received harassing text messages, had beer bottles thrown at him, and ultimately left KU with a diagnosis that harassment from fellow fraternity members had produced post-traumatic stress disorder.
And, then, there is a mystery incident, where at least one KU fraternity student had his face covered with a pillowcase to the point that he had trouble breathing as part of some fraternity ritual that KU is declining to release the details of.
All three are alleged incidents that KU leaders earlier this month felt comfortable putting into a pair of investigative reports that were used to suspend two KU fraternities for alleged hazing activity.
But there is something KU isn’t comfortable doing: Turning those investigative reports over to local law enforcement to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against any of the alleged perpetrators. KU has confirmed it hasn’t done so in either case.
“Students always remain free to pursue criminal charges, and if they would seek to do so, we would provide appropriate assistance,” KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson told the Journal-World via email. “However, we will not take control away from a victim by triggering a criminal investigation the victim does not want.”
That response sparked an investigation by the Journal-World into whether KU has any policy related to when it would forward information of a possible hazing-related crime to law enforcement authorities. Is there any amount of evidence about any type of crime that would spur KU officials to proactively forward investigative findings to law enforcement? KU officials declined to answer that question, and provided no information about how university leaders weigh whether to involve law enforcement in matters pertaining to student safety and potential crimes.
The Journal-World’s investigation also found new questions regarding whether any individual students have been disciplined by KU under its student code of conduct related to the alleged hazing incidents. KU revoked the student organization status of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and Phi Delta Theta fraternity for five years. However, that has been the only punishment KU has announced in the matter, despite the investigative reports indicating that KU in some instances has the names of individual students who perpetrated the alleged hazing.
Initially, KU responded to a question from the Journal-World about whether any individual students had been sanctioned under KU’s student code of conduct in a way that indicated no students had been sanctioned. KU’s response made no mention of KU’s student code of conduct but rather highlighted that each fraternity had punished individual members. When the Journal-World asked why KU had not sanctioned any individuals, a university spokeswoman simply said KU would “not comment on sanctions against individual students.”
That leaves community members and stakeholders forced to guess whether individuals are being punished for any of the alleged actions. An expert in the profession of student conduct and discipline said it was important that universities not just punish organizations.
“We do highly recommend that institutions hold both organizations and individuals accountable,” Christina Parle, president-elect of the Association of Student Conduct, said. “It is great if you close the band, or close the fraternity, or close the chess club, but if you don’t hold individuals accountable, they continue to be your students … They are taking those actions, those behaviors, those learned things elsewhere.”
Call the cops?
Sometimes, those learned actions can be crimes.
A head slammed against a locker could be criminal, under the right circumstances. Some of the text messages could be violations of various laws related to harassment, in certain situations. And the imagination could run wild about what laws might be violated by a ritual that involves placing a pillowcase over someone’s face. The university’s report made allegations of “exceedingly dangerous” forced alcohol consumption as part of that fraternity. The Journal-World asked whether the pillowcase incident involved forced alcohol consumption, but university officials declined to provide details, citing federal student privacy laws.
There’s one state law, though, that likely would cover most of the allegations. Kansas, like 44 other states, has a law that makes general hazing activities a criminal offense. The Kansas law makes it a class B nonperson misdemeanor to commit any act that “could reasonably be expected to result in great bodily harm, disfigurement or death,” as part of an initiation or condition of membership into an organization.
A spokeswoman for Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez said the local DA’s office has never been presented with a hazing case under that statute since Valdez took office in January 2021.
For the law to get used, local law enforcement first has to become aware of alleged hazing activities. An article in a newspaper might alert law enforcement to a suspension of a fraternity for hazing, but a formal notice from the university could include much more. As part of its investigations, KU has testimony from individuals, text messages and numerous other documents that could be useful to law enforcement, if it decided to conduct its own investigation.
In some places, that sharing happens between the university and the police. In the best relationships, the sharing goes both ways, said Parle, who previously worked at KU in a position related to student conduct and community standards, but has played no role in these most recent hazing investigations.
“There are absolutely some institutions that receive information from police departments and share information with police departments,” Parle said. “It all really depends on the relationships and the policies at those specific institutions.”
At KU, there’s no evidence that there is a policy on when to share information about a potential crime with the police. The Journal-World asked KU for information about how KU decides when an incident is serious enough to turn over to law enforcement for review. A KU spokeswoman declined to answer the question, saying the question was too hypothetical to answer.
It is not even clear whether KU leaders have ever had any discussion about creating such a policy. The Journal-World asked whether KU leaders had any opinion on whether convictions under the state’s hazing law could serve as a deterrent to future hazing incidents. The spokeswoman said KU leaders had no opinion on that topic. As a follow-up, the Journal-World asked whether university leaders had ever had a discussion about whether such criminal prosecutions could be a deterrent to hazing issues. The spokeswoman declined to say whether such a discussion had ever occurred.
KU does note that it provides victims in hazing cases with a copy of the investigative reports, which the victims can provide to law enforcement if they wish. Certainly, though, there are times when victims don’t want to pursue such criminal investigations, and KU said its process “restores power to victims,” by not pursuing criminal investigations. But the Journal-World asked whether there are instances in society where crimes are committed that require investigation by law enforcement regardless of the wishes of a victim. KU declined to answer on the grounds the question was too hypothetical. It offered the same response to a question about whether there are any concerns that if certain crimes are left un-investigated or un-prosecuted by the legal system that the perpetrators of those crimes will commit similar or worse offenses in the future, thus harming other students or community members.
That issue, though, seemingly is at the heart of laws in several states that require university officials to report evidence of hazing to local law enforcement when such evidence is discovered. The most recent state to enact such a law is Ohio, which allows the state to charge universities with a first-degree misdemeanor if they fail to report such incidents to law enforcement.
Creation of such mandated reporters — which is common in sexual assault and child abuse laws, for example — is an emerging trend when it comes to hazing laws. Kansas’ law does not contain such a provision.
“It is still very uneven, but that is definitely something that you will see, especially in more recently updated laws,” said Elizabeth Allan, a higher education professor at the University of Maine and director of StopHazing.org.
Parle, who works as a compliance director for a national fraternity organization not involved in the KU incidents, said she also is aware of similar laws in Pennsylvania, Florida and Louisiana, while she believes discussions are underway in other states.
Parle said those states that have enacted such laws generally share a common characteristic that hasn’t yet happened at KU: They all had a high-profile hazing incident that resulted in the death of a student.
Punish the students?
A KU spokeswoman said KU won’t comment on any KU sanctions against individual students, but she did disclose that the local chapters of the two fraternities took action against individual students. The fraternities have not responded to requests for comments from the Journal-World regarding those sanctions, although KU’s investigative summary letter did disclose that Phi Delta Theta expelled four members from the fraternity, suspended three and removed a position from one member.
But KU’s investigative summary letter for Phi Gamma Delta created questions about whether that fraternity had taken any significant action against its members.
“The evidence shows current members did nothing to address known hazing and fail to recognize its severity,” Tammara Durham, KU’s vice provost for student affairs, wrote in the letter. “The evidence shows little interest by chapter leadership in holding members accountable.”
It is not clear whether KU officials are even aware of what punishments have been handed down to individual fraternity members. A KU spokeswoman provided no answer to a Journal-World question about whether the university knew what penalties were imposed by the fraternities on individual members.
For some stakeholders in the university community, the question is now whether KU has done anything to punish or sanction those individual members. KU’s approach of refusing to state whether any individual sanctions have been administered is different from some universities, but not all, Parle said.
“I do think some institutions absolutely say that,” Parle said of schools confirming that they are punishing individual students, although they generally would not release the names of those students.
Parle said it was well understood that federal education privacy laws would prohibit releasing the names of individuals who have been punished, but she said there were many universities that interpreted the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as giving schools latitude to make general statements about student punishments that they’ve handed out.
But Parle said other universities have general counsels who don’t believe the law allows for such latitude. The end result is that stakeholders in the university community may not have enough information to know whether KU is appropriately holding individual members accountable for the alleged hazing incidents.
“It is a never-ending challenge that universities and colleges face because of things like FERPA,” Parle said, referring to the acronym of the federal privacy law. “We don’t have the ability to navigate some of that in a way that public-facing people would want.”
She did note, however, that there was one process that generally trumped the federal privacy law provisions.
“That’s where it is helpful to have a criminal process,” she said, as details that come out in a criminal investigation are generally available for the public to see once charges have been filed.
Parle, though, said she was also sympathetic to universities that have concerns that a criminal investigation could be traumatizing to victims and to those who report hazing incidents.
“Not all reporters feel comfortable with the legal process,” she said. “They may prefer to keep it at the institutional level, but that comes with some pretty significant restrictions.”
Allan, with StopHazing.org, said figuring out an appropriate path for universities to follow in hazing cases was important because researchers have found that transparency was one of the most important tools in combating hazing.
Her organization and others are pushing for federal legislation that would increase transparency by requiring universities to report hazing incidents as part of their Clery Report, a federally mandated report that tracks a variety of crimes that occur on campus. The report doesn’t, however, track hazing. Making that a federal requirement would give researchers data more on par with crimes like sexual assault, child abuse and other such offenses.
“In terms of these other issues, we are several decades behind in terms of catching up on research to inform prevention and practices and policies that can be most effective,” Allan said.