How far is too far during college initiation rituals, hazing?

Xavier student sues over 'hazing' injuries

CINCINNATI – How far is too far?

That’s the question many are asking after a lawsuit was filed this month alleging a Xavier University student was injured during a hazing event last year.

Members of University of Cincinnati’s Pi Beta Phi, a self-described fraternity for women, were celebrating National Pi Day at a fundraiser event Friday by tossing pies at the faces of members.

According to them, tossing pies is not hazing.

In Ohio, hazing is illegal and is defined as “doing any act or coercing another, including the victim, to do any act of initiation into any student or other organization that causes or creates a substantial risk of mental or physical harm to any person.”

The law also prohibits any administrator, employee or faculty member of any educational institution to “permit the hazing of any person.”

In other states like New York, the law prohibits physical abuse in initiation rituals but says nothing about psychological abuse. There are also several states that have no specific anti-hazing laws. These states instead rely on criminal battery or manslaughter statutes to prevent and punish hazing.

In former Xavier men's soccer player Neil Henley's case, he claims he was injured multiple times after being coerced into drinking “significant quantities” of alcohol at a soccer team event – and those injuries led to the loss of his scholarship.

At the event, Henley said he and other first-year students were required to binge drink and perform embarrassing tasks. Henley said he was also given the title, “The Chosen One” and subjected to additional hazing and an “unknown chemical agent.”

Prior to the party, members of the soccer team wrote on a private Facebook page created for the event. There, one player wrote, “Make peace with God tonight, freshman,” according to the lawsuit. Another player wrote, "Next Sunday morning, well afternoon for most of you will be consisting of telling stories and piecing together your day/night!"

Hazing allegations in the Tri-State are not new.

Before Henley's lawsuit, Miami University’s Beta Theta Pi Fraternity closed its founding Alpha chapter in February. The closing came after an investigation into alcohol abuse, a pattern of misconduct and hazing.

University of Cincinnati Director of Student Activities Nicole Mayo said UC also has its fair share of hazing violations.

"We have had two hazing incidents this year," Mayo said.

She said there is a “gray area” that makes it challenging to pin down hazing. That’s because participating in “rituals” is legal – and defining the difference between “hazing” and “rituals” is not easy.

“Rituals are closed to any public people, and open only to members and student who wish to be members,” Mayo said.

What happens during these rituals must follow the mandates of the fraternity or sorority’s national organization, she said.

But is what they’re doing crossing the line? Getting that answer is even more difficult.

Members of Pi Beta Phi would not comment Friday on how their organization defines the differences between rituals and hazing because they were “prohibited from answering.”

Mayo said the issue can get even more confusing because some things that may seem completely legal are actually categorized as hazing.

"Scavenger hunts, interviews – those things are often considered hazing," she said.

Regardless of the complications behind defining hazing, Mayo said UC is working to prevent it in all its forms. The university trains its faculty and staff to watch out for changes in a student’s behavior – which might signal they have been victimized by hazing.

Because at the end of the day, Mayo said student safety is priority – and if that’s violated, then the answer is simple: They’ve gone too far.

WCPO's Scott Wegener contributed to this report.

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