After son’s death at WSU, family hopes loss leads to hazing legislation: ‘It’s to save a life for the one taken from us’
Jan. 14, 2022 Updated Fri., Jan. 14, 2022 at 9:21 a.m.
OLYMPIA – It’s a day that Jolayne Houtz remembers vividly.
She was sitting at her desk at work and heard ragged breathing outside her door. It was her husband, Hector Martinez, telling her they needed to go home immediately. When they pulled up to their home, they saw three police officers and a police chaplain.
Their 19-year-old son, Sam Martinez, had been found dead at his fraternity house.
It would later be revealed that the Washington State University freshman and pledge of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity had died of alcohol poisoning after attending a fraternity event. It was clearly a case of hazing in the eyes of Houtz and others. But no hazing charges were filed as the one-year statute of limitations for the misdemeanor had passed by the time a prosecutor was ready to charge those involved.
Pushed by grief and indignation, Houtz and Martinez set out to challenge the system. They reached out to legislators to make changes in the laws relating to hazing.
Now, two bills proposed in the Washington state House seek to increase the penalties associated with hazing and improve accountability in colleges and organizations.
“They all have a role to play in ensuring that our young adults have a safe and healthy learning environment,” Houtz said. “That failed in our case, and I don’t want to see it happen to anyone else.”
One bill expands the definition of hazing, requires hazing education for all staff and students of institutions of higher education and requires institutions to make public reports on hazing and other misconduct by student organizations.
A separate bill – known as the “Sam’s Law Act” – would increase the penalties and statute of limitations for hazing.
It would upgrade hazing charges from misdemeanors to gross misdemeanors, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and/or a fine up to $5,000, compared to just up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine up to $1,000 for a misdemeanor. Hazing that “causes substantial bodily harm” would become a class C felony and would come with a punishment of up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
In 2021, 15 fraternity members were charged with the gross misdemeanor of furnishing alcohol to minors in connection to the fraternity event that resulted in Sam’s death. Only one member was charged with furnishing alcohol to Martinez, and was sentenced in October to 19 days in jail. Of the other 14 members, seven were sentenced to one day in jail, and the other seven did not receive any jail time.
To Houtz, those light punishments were nothing short of insulting.
“The very worst day in our life was learning that Sam was gone,” Houtz said. “But it is reopening that wound again to realize that the system will not be serious about holding anyone to account for that.”
Bill would require hazing education
At a committee hearing for the hazing education and reporting bill, Hector Martinez said he was fooled by the Greek system.
“If I only had known then what I know now, Samito would be alive,” he testified. “As a parent, I believed all the good things they told us about being part of the Greek system. I was blinded by the idea of Sam being involved in study tables and community service and the brotherhood.”
All institutions of higher education, public and private, would have to publicly report on any kind of investigation into student organizations, whether it be regarding hazing, alcohol or assault. A list of investigations in progress and findings from completed investigations would need to be published.
If a national fraternity or sorority organization launches a hazing-related investigation into a local chapter, they would be required to provide findings to the chapter’s institution. National fraternity and sorority organizations looking to launch a local chapter must inform an institution of their intent and ensure that their chapter’s websites include a list of findings from misconduct investigations from the past five years. Failure to do so would result in an automatic loss of recognition for the chapter.
“We are consumers of educational opportunities along with our young adults. Fraternities are selling a product, which is brotherhood, and universities are partnering with them to promote Greek life actively,” Houtz said. “Why shouldn’t parents have access to information to make informed consumer decisions about the organizations that they and their young adults want to be associated with?”
Pullman police Chief Gary Jenkins testified that the public reporting requirement will go a long way to “bring hazing out of the shadows.”
The bill would require institutions to put their students through an education program that goes over the institution’s hazing policies, the dangers of hazing and how students can intervene. Students who have not completed the training cannot be accepted into any student organization.
One of the sponsors of the bill, Rep. Tana Senn, D-Bellevue, said education and intervention are keys to keeping students safe.
“We need to teach our young people right now, if we haven’t already, that speaking up to protect our fellow man and speaking up about doing the right thing is never wrong,” Senn said. “You might not want to say anything because you want to bond, but on the other hand, these are your brothers or your sisters. You want to make sure that they’re safe.”
Institution employees and volunteers would receive hazing education as well. Anyone who reports a hazing incident “in good faith” would not face punishment unless they were directly involved in the hazing. Senn said the bill reinforces the mandatory reporter standard that if an adult has reasonable cause to believe a hazing incident has taken place, they would be obligated to make a report to their institution.
Both the president and vice president of the Associated Students of Washington State University spoke at the hearing in support of the bill.
WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said the university has been engaged with the sponsors of the hazing education and reporting bill since last summer.
“WSU will continue to work with the bill’s sponsor and the State Legislature in hopes of fine tuning the bill so it can be sent to the governor’s desk ready for practical implementation,” he said in an email to The Spokesman-Review.
Officials from other institutions expressed concerns about some of the bill’s provisions.
Joe Holliday, director of student services for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, supports the bill but wants to “draw the line” at reporting only findings of completed investigations.
Morgan Hickel, associate director of state relations for the University of Washington, also supports the bill, but had questions about reporting ongoing investigations. She also had concerns about the ability to provide hazing education to large numbers of students, families and employees. She asked for further discussion between universities and the bill’s authors.
‘Sam’s Law Act’ would increase hazing charges
The “Sam’s Law Act” would not only increase hazing charges, but extend their statutes of limitations. Senn said institutions and law enforcement want more time to look into hazing allegations.
“It was really important to them that they have more time to do a thorough and complete investigation and not be up against the clock,” she said.
When Houtz learned the statute of limitations for hazing had passed in her son’s case and fraternity members were being charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor, she said she was baffled.
“Which calls to mind, you know, kids hanging out at a 7/11 and asking a guy to go in and get them a six-pack,” she said. “This was not what that was.”
Overall, Houtz and Senn said they believe both bills make meaningful progress to bring an end to hazing.
Houtz said the bills send “a signal not only to young people, but to all actors involved in the Greek system and beyond, universities and Greek organizations, that we don’t tolerate hazing in the state and that the consequences are severe.”
“The loss of life of a promising young man like Sam should never happen. And it certainly should never happen again,” Senn said. “And I think these steps that we’re taking will go a long way toward that.”
And for Houtz, the fight for accountability will continue beyond these two bills.
“Our goal is really simple. It’s to save a life for the one that was taken from us,” Houtz said. “There’s just so much more that we need to do to keep our young people safe.”
The hazing education and reporting bill is scheduled for a committee vote on Jan. 20. If passed out of committee, it will go to the full House for consideration. The “Sam’s Law Act” has been referred to the House Public Safety Committee and is awaiting a hearing.
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