Anti-hazing legislation is again going before the Ohio Senate following the 2018 death of Ohio University student Collin Wiant and the recent death of Bowling Green State University (BGSU) student Stone Foltz.
Last week, State Sen. Stephanie Kunze, (R-Hilliard) and Sen. Theresa Gavarone (R-Bowling Green) reintroduced “Collin’s Law,” which aims to increase penalties for hazing, education for the state’s college students and transparency abilities for universities.
Collin’s Law, named for the OU student who died in the alleged annex of the since-expelled Sigma Pi Epsilon chapter at OU in November of 2018, would increase the penalty for hazing, currently a fourth-degree misdemeanor, to a felony.
Last year, efforts to pass House Bill 310, a past version of Collin’s Law introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives by Rep. Dave Greenspan (R-Westlake), were successful in the Ohio House, but the bill stalled in the state’s Senate in December. Kunze noted that she has been working with Wiant’s family to strengthen language in the bill since it failed to pass.
In addition, Gavarone said during the press conference that the expected bill includes language that focuses solely on hazing, differing from House Bill 310, which also included language about bullying in K-12 schools.
Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn, who previously endorsed House Bill 310, spoke at the Wednesday press conference, asserting that current state hazing laws are inefficient, a message he has voiced numerous times in recent years. Hazing is currently a fourth-degree misdemeanor with a maximum prison sentence of 30 days, and city prosecutors are tasked with prosecuting it.
“(Collin’s Law) would give universities the ability to investigate and report, to let parents know what’s happening,” Blackburn said. “It would give prosecutors the ability to compel individuals in front of a grand jury and to find out secrets that have gone on for years and years.”
The prosecutor nodded to the cyclical nature of hazing, noting that many people who are hazed grow older and haze others. He explained a hazing ritual found at an Ohio University fraternity where pledges were forced to cross the Hocking River, which has a strong undercurrent and is the site of drawings every few years, during the “dead of winter.”
“It’s time people stand up… and say that we are not going to protect institutions: we’re going to protect Ohioans, we’re going to protect our kids,” he said.
Kathleen Wiant, the mother of Collin who has advocated for stronger anti-hazing laws since her son’s 2018 death, offered her condolences to the family of Foltz, who died at the age of 20 on March 7 following an alleged hazing incident at an event hosted by the BGSU Chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha, commonly called “PIKE.”
“No family should ever have to go through what the family of Stone Foltz has gone through,” Wiant said. “No family should go through what our family has gone through.”
Wiant’s death is at the center of lawsuits filed by his parents, Kahtleen and Wade, and a lawsuit filed in October 2020 against two former Sigma Pi fraternity leaders, alleging that during Sigma Pi Epsilon’s pledging process, Wiant’s class was subjected to “extensive hazing.”
Specifically, the suit alleges pledges were beaten with belts or “forced to beat others with a belt;” punched; pelted with eggs; forced to drink 1.75 liters of vodka in 60 minutes; deprived of sleep and “forced to do planks on sharp ends of bottle caps;” among other acts.
The suit also alleged that during the pledging process in 2018, Wiant was “subjected to physical abuse, verbal abuse, mental abuse, sleep deprivation, forced drug and alcohol use, and other forms of hazing intended to humiliate and demean him.”
Note: This article was updated July 6 to change state Sen.Theresa Gavarone's role from co-sponsor to joint sponsor of SB 126.