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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Culture of secrecy’: Bill to increase hazing penalty moves closer to final passage

Hector Martinez and Jolayne Houtz, parents of Sam Martinez, in front of the Legislative Building in Olympia in March 2022.  (Albert James/The Spokesman-Review / The Spokesman-Review)
By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review The Spokesman-Review

Penalties for hazing could increase as the state House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to reclassify the crime from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor.

In 2019, WSU freshman Sam Martinez died from alcohol poisoning after allegedly being hazed by members of Alpha Tau Omega, the fraternity he was pledging. Devastated and motivated by grief, his family have become outspoken advocates for hazing prevention. Last year, they rallied behind a bill that passed, which expanded the definition of hazing, required hazing education at universities and mandated that universities publicize hazing reports. Now, they have their sights set on the penalties for hazing.

The bill this year would increase the penalty for hazing from where it stands currently as a misdemeanor, resulting in a maximum 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, to a gross misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum 364-day jail sentence and a fine of up to $5,000. In instances where hazing results in substantial bodily harm, the bill would make it a class C felony, resulting in up to 5 years in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000.

In Martinez’s case, 15 of his fraternity brothers were charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor. The most punishment any of them faced was 19 days in jail, which his family called “unjust.”

“What is the message we sent to those who would haze our young people? When a young man dies and the consequences are so laughable?” said Jolayne Houtz, Martinez’s mother. “It is offensive, and it is unacceptable.”

Supporters said penalties act as a deterrent, and increasing them will send a clear message that hazing is unacceptable and erode the “culture of secrecy” surrounding hazing.

“This bill would provide a remedy and opportunity to address the secrecy of the culture, to end the opportunities (to haze) in national organizations,” said bill sponsor Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place.

This isn’t Houtz’s first foray in advocating for anti-hazing legislation. Last session, she rallied for the pair of anti-hazing bills. One bill passed each chamber unanimously. The other, the same as the bill on the table this session, didn’t pass because lawmakers ran out of time in the shortened session.

After the passage of last year’s bill, WSU established a hazing prevention committee to review the university’s tactics and programming to deter hazing, and provide recommendations to the university president.

In accordance with the law, the university also unveiled a database to document all reported cases of hazing and other rule violations by fraternity and sorority chapters, as well as what sanctions the university imposed on violating chapters.

Earlier this year, WSU freshman Luke Tyler died by suicide in his dorm room. Authorities haven’t officially connected Luke’s death to hazing, but his family alleged hazing at his fraternity, Theta Chi, had brought him to a “breaking point.”

In one hazing incident from 2021, Phi Sigma Kappa members made pledges to do wall sits. Houtz said this was one of the ways her son was hazed, as well as being forced to eat raw onions and other demeaning acts, she said.

In 2020, members of Alpha Sigma Phi drove pledges a mile away from town. They were told to drink alcohol and run back to town, where they were offered more alcohol.

Opponents of the 2023 bill said increasing punishment will not deter young people from hazing, nor reduce recidivism. Perpetrators of hazing are often young and capable of reform, opponents said.

“We must begin to wean ourselves off the addiction through increased incarceration as the solution to all of our problems,” said David Trieweiler with the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“Let’s give last year’s bill a chance to work,” Trieweiler said.

Opponents said focusing efforts to increase penalties is misplaced, and enforcing existing laws relating to the sale and supply of alcohol to minors would be more effective at preventing hazing.

Houtz and other advocates said while the bill from last year is a step in the right direction, it’s only a part of a comprehensive package to “shine the light of day” onto the culture of hazing in Greek life.

Charlie Gartenberg, a friend of Martinez who previously served as director of recruitment on the Interfraternity Council, said he continued to see hazing at fraternities after Martinez’s death.

“In the sense of hazing, that still happens,” Gartenberg said. “I mean, my fraternity, like every fraternity, just does it. They try to be as secretive as they can about it.”

While on the council, Gartenberg said advisors instructed him not to speak to any news outlets about Sam’s death. Houtz said this contributed to the silence and secrecy of hazing.

“There’s a wall that hazing sits behind,” Houtz said. “People form that wall.”

The bill passed the House unanimously earlier this month. On Monday, a Senate committee heard public testimony on the bill. Next, committee members will vote on the bill, though this vote has not been scheduled.