Jun. 13—COLUMBUS — Legislation requiring tougher penalties after hazing-related injury and death on college campuses could make convicted felons of students whose brains are not yet fully developed, the Ohio Public Defender's office has argued.
A criminal record could have lifelong consequences for students, the office's lobbyist, Niki Clum, said in written testimony recently submitted to the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee.
"When college kids get together and/or in stressful situations, their ability to appreciate long-term consequences is depleted," she wrote. "When we talk about hazing on college campuses, it is important to remember that the individuals who are engaging in hazing have immature brains and suffer from deficiencies in judgment.
Brains do not fully develop until the mid-20s, and "this is why we see intelligent and promising college kids engaging in hazing and even hazing their friends," Ms. Clum argued.
The committee is considering House Bill 205, sponsored by state Reps. Haraz Ghanbari (R., Bowling Green) and Mike Sheehy (D., Oregon). It would increase the general offense of hazing from a fourth-degree to a second-degree misdemeanor, the latter carrying up to 90 days in jail.
It would also create a new third-degree felony when the hazing involves recklessly coercing another into consuming alcohol or drugs, leading to physical harm. That charge could carry up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The bill and another measure carrying different penalties in the Senate would be named for Collin Wiant, an 18-year-old Ohio University student from Dublin, Ohio, who died of asphyxiation in 2018 after inhaling a canister of nitrous oxide during a fraternity ritual.
Further fueling the call for stiffer penalties was the early March death of Stone Foltz, 20, of Delaware, Ohio, who died from alcohol poisoning following a fraternity event at Bowling Green State University during which pledges were expected to consume large amounts of alcohol.
"That is an unimaginable pain," Ms. Crum wrote. "It is understandable that such a terrible situation makes this legislature want to act. However, we cannot solve one tragedy with another, and bad facts make bad law.
"The legislature needs to fight the temptation to make drastic changes to our criminal justice system after a tragic event," she wrote. "Good public policy should be based on data and research in consultation with experts, not from a place of sadness, fear, or anger."
She personally delivered similar testimony in person in a prior Senate committee hearing. She argued then that the proposed charges are too broad, particularly when it comes to failure to stop or report hazing. She noted that other felonies are available to prosecutors, such as involuntary manslaughter and felonious assault — charges that have been filed against students in the Stone Foltz case.
"Penalties are warranted and will, in fact, deter hazing," said Cory Foltz, Stone's father, in recent testimony before the Senate committee.
"The opposition claims there will be no difference because the brains of a 18-to-22-year-old boy aren't fully developed, but severe penalties have deterred bad behavior among kids in other areas," he said. "Drunk driving is a good example. While it still exists, there is far less drunk driving because [of] stiffer penalties. Providing severe consequences for poor behavior has been how kids are parented for ages."
Unlike the Senate bill, House Bill 205 is coupled with tougher punishment for bullying in primary and secondary schools.