The Columbus Dispatch
Collin Wiant’s parents are doing the most positive thing they can following the cruel and senseless death of their son: demanding change in the system and culture that killed him.
It’s a fight every college and university should join. Changing the culture that tolerates the gross abuse euphemized as “hazing” will take time, but change in the rules, policies and practices of education institutions and law enforcement should come much more quickly.
Collin was an 18-year-old freshman at Ohio University when he died on Nov. 12. The final few months of his life were devoted in large part to earning the approval of the Sigma Pi fraternity, which, a lawsuit claims, demanded that he show his loyalty in these ways: drinking a gallon of alcoholic beverages in an hour; staying up all night studying to take tests for fraternity members; being pelted with eggs, beaten with a belt and punched.
On his last night, proving his loyalty apparently required doing whippets — ingesting nitrous oxide — until he died from asphyxiation. He was found on the floor of a house believed to be the fraternity’s unofficial annex. He lay amid nitrous-oxide canisters and other drug paraphernalia.
OU ordered the Sigma Pi house closed after Collin’s death and, earlier this month, formally expelled the chapter.
Collin’s parents, Wade and Kathleen Wiant, have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Athens County Common Pleas Court against the Sigma Pi chapter. They told The Dispatch they want to see the culture changed.
Regarding campus Greek organizations, any one whose members are caught abusing others who seek to join should receive a stark warning: If it happens again, your chapter is gone. No multiple warnings should be required. And any case in which someone is seriously hurt should result in immediate expulsion of the organization — no second chance is justified.
The problem of hazing has been well known since the inception of fraternal organizations and it has, officially at least, been banned for decades. Any fraternity, sorority, sports team or club that allows it to happen does so with full knowledge that it is unacceptable. They should be held accountable.
Holding individuals accountable is harder. The very human forces that give cultish organizations their power — the desire to belong, to prove one’s self, to meet a challenge, however pointless — make many hazing victims reluctant to accuse the organizations or to corroborate others’ claims.
This may be why so few criminal charges are filed in hazing incidents in Ohio despite a 1983 law that made it a fourth-degree misdemeanor. Many incidents aren’t reported to authorities and when they are, often the victims and witnesses don’t want to cooperate in investigations.
Dispatch reporters looking at municipal court records for at least the past 25 years found only five hazing charges in the communities around Ohio’s largest universities.
Yet the abuse goes on: At the end of 2017, Time magazine noted the deaths of four fraternity pledges that year. Three were “found unresponsive” and died after drinking enormous quantities of alcohol. The fourth, Tim Piazza at Penn State University, was forced to consume 18 drinks in less than 90 minutes and suffered traumatic head injuries after falling headfirst down a flight of steps.
Those tragedies naturally garner the most national attention, but the everyday abuses and the culture of coercion and humiliation they foster do everyday damage.
The crude, bullying, disrespectful culture that fuels hazing is deeply engrained, but there’s reason to hope that change is possible. The culture upended by the #MeToo movement was equally ingrained and even more widespread, but that has changed; the sexual harassment that many used to take for granted is less and less tolerated, and men who don’t understand that are finding fewer and fewer safe harbors.
If the campus Greek culture can adapt to focus on the service and “brotherhood” elements that give it value, it can thrive and become something more than the embarrassing anachronism that hazing represents.
Those organizations that don’t change have no place in the 21st century.