ATLANTA — The arrests of 10 people associated with a college fraternity for an alleged hazing incident that killed a freshman are intended to send a tough message: Louisiana State University will not tolerate the alcohol-fueled behavior.
But the arrests alone may do little to end a campus tradition that has killed at least one American college student a year since 1961, experts said Wednesday.
“It’s unusual for such stiff penalties to be placed. What would be more unusual is if the penalties are successful,” said Hank Nuwer, an associate journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana, who has studied hazing for four decades. “We just saw that at Penn State. It’s very hard for them to stick.”
On Wednesday, eight current and two former LSU students were charged with hazing following the Sept. 14 death of Max Gruver of Roswell, Ga., the university said. One student, Matthew Alexander Naquin, was also charged with negligent homicide.
Gruver was the second LSU student in 20 years to die from excessive alcohol at fraternity events. On Aug. 26, 1997, Benjamin Wynne, 20, died after an estimated two dozen alcoholic drinks to celebrate his acceptance into a fraternity. No one was arrested in connection with Wynne’s death, which also made national headlines.
Louisiana is one of 44 states with a hazing law, according to Emily Pualwan, executive director of Hazing Prevention, a Georgia-based nonprofit. And the laws vary greatly from state to state, she said. In Louisiana, like many states, hazing is a misdemeanor, meaning a fine is a typical punishment if convicted.
“Clearly it’s a problem if you can’t even charge someone,” Pualwan said. “It’s hard to enforce it and send a strong message that this won’t be tolerated.”
In the LSU case, the negligent homicide charge is punishable by up to five years in prison if convicted. But hazing charges are hard to prosecute because it’s difficult to prove and, in some cases, the victim is blamed, experts said.
“It’s easy to say, ‘They just should’ve walked away,’ ” Pualwan said. “But when you’re in the moment and you want to belong, it’s very difficult to do.”
Gruver, 18, had an alcohol level of 0.495 percent — more than six times the legal limit for drivers — at the time of his death, the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office said Wednesday. He died the morning after a suspected hazing incident at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, according to investigators.
“There’s no way he was capable of making his own decisions,” Nuwer said.
An autopsy determined Gruver died from acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration, the Coroner’s Office said. Preliminary tests showed a highly elevated alcohol level, and Gruver also had THC — the chemical found in marijuana — in his urine.
LSU President F. King Alexander suspended all Greek activities after Gruver’s death. The fraternity’s national headquarters also suspended the LSU chapter. Gruver’s family was informed of the investigation findings and charges.
“Today’s arrests underscore that the ramifications of hazing can be devastating,” Alexander said Wednesday in an emailed statement. “Maxwell Gruver’s family will mourn his loss for the rest of their lives, and several other students are now facing serious consequences — all due to a series of poor decisions.”
Gruver was a 2017 graduate of Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell and planned to study journalism at LSU. He loved sports and helped coach younger children, including his sister’s basketball team, according to his family. “Max was very lovable. He cared a lot about people,” Eugene Gruver, Max’s grandfather, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the day after his death. “He was bright, he was intelligent. He was so talented. He knew all about sports.”
But what it will take to end hazing rituals, which involve alcohol a majority of the time? It’s crucial that education begin before students step foot on campus, Pualwan said. As early as middle school, students can be taught about the dangers of peer pressure and belonging to groups, she said.
Nuwer said a “dry” Greek system ultimately would help, but it isn’t a popular idea on campuses.
“This is a period where fraternities are under attack,” Nuwer said. “It’s got to go dry. Alcohol and hazing are synonymous.”