Texas’ laws defining hazing have not been changed in over a decade, but now, state lawmakers say they are facing pressure following deaths of three Texas college students — including former UT student Nicky Cumberland — which have sparked conversations about hazing.
Senate Bill 38 would redefine the legal definition of hazing to make the offense easier to prosecute and hold universities more accountable for alerting incoming freshmen to organizations with a history of hazing. The bill passed in the Senate on Thursday, 26-5. A similar bill in the House, House Bill 1482, passed committee but has yet to be heard on the House floor.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, co-authored SB 38 and has tried to pass a similar bill five times. She called on Senate members to create accountability in the laws and institutions “to eradicate this barbaric behavior in Texas.”
“Some may dismiss (acts of hazing) as crude and mostly harmless rights of passage, or as team building exercises,” Zaffirini said in a speech to the Senate. “That supposedly innocent intent, however, often is perverted into acts of cruelty and degradation, including downright torture and life-threatening experiences.”
The bills would make forcing someone to drink alcohol an act of hazing.
The bills would also require postsecondary educational institutions like UT to send students information defining hazing, as well as a list of all student organizations disciplined for hazing in the past three years with detailed reports on each incident. Reports would need to include when the university opened an investigation, the hazing incident itself and all university and court imposed penalties or fines. Information that could identify specific individuals involved is excluded.
The detailed report or a link to said report will need to be sent out two weeks before classes begin, according to the bills. Current laws only require universities to send out the names of organizations disciplined or convicted of hazing in the first three weeks after classes begin each semester.
Last fall, the Office of the Dean of Students sent out the required hazing information on Sept. 18, 20 days after classes began and one day short of the three week deadline. Several organizations on campus require prospective members to apply before the third week of class, meaning students could join an organization without yet knowing of its previous hazing violations.
The Office of the Dean of Students and the Texas Interfraternity Council did not respond to a request for comment.
The bill out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee included preventing someone from using their cellphone in order to deny them the ability to record an act of hazing, to the definition of hazing. Shawn Cumberland, father of Nicky Cumberland, testified to the committee that his son had his phone taken away during multiple Texas Cowboys’ events.
“(The Cowboys) let (Nicky) drive on his moped through the city of Austin late at night … his roommates told me that he could barely stand or talk,” Cumberland said to the committee. “If he had his cellphone, he could have called his girlfriend to come pick him up and get him out of (the) bad situation.”
However, adding this addition to the definition was removed by an amendment from state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who said it would be too hard to prove by prosecutors.
The bill would also grant immunity from civil liability to anyone who voluntarily reports an act of hazing they themselves did not commit. Current laws already give immunity to criminal charges to anyone who reports hazing.