Story and photos by Zoë Haggard / Contributing Writer
Fraternity and Sorority Life hosted the End Hazing Now Coalition, which featured two keynote speakers and a Q&A session Tuesday night at the Student Union Ballroom on Middle Tennessee State University campus.
The speakers were Rae Ann Gruver and Lianne Kowiak—two mothers whose sons died after being hazed. From their personal stories of loss, Gruver and Kowiak spoke to the 27 fraternities and sororities in attendance about their work to end hazing.
The keynote speech began with Gruver standing before the picture of her son, Max, at his first day at Louisiana State University where he had joined the Phi Delta Theta chapter.
“It’s the last time I felt his arms around me, giving me that huge hug. It’s the last time I saw that enormous smile. It’s the last time I was able to look him in the eyes,” she said.
Max died of acute alcohol poisoning in September 2017 after drinking 32-oz of high-potency alcohol, a hazing challenge set by the fraternity, according to his mother.
“This is not the college experience that we—or, I think, any of you—are looking for,” she said.
Throughout her speech, Gruver emphasized the need for fraternity and sorority members to be proactive in these situations. She emphasized that none of the members of the fraternity called 911 when Max’s condition worsened. Bystander intervention, she said, could have saved his life.
After her son’s death, Gruver founded the Max Gruver Foundation. Leslie Merritt, director of Fraternity and Sorority life at MTSU, said the university has donated $500 to each of the mothers’ foundations.
Kowiak lost her son, Harrison, in November 2008 after he received a severe head injury in a football hazing challenge set by his fraternity, Theta Ki, at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina.
“We are not here to point fingers. We are here to educate,” said Kowiak.
She and her husband made the decision to take Harrison off life support shortly after the accident. He was 19 years old.
“We speak from the heart; we speak very fondly of our sons. And our goal, our purpose, is to share our stories so that each and every one of you are safe,” said Kowiak.
There have been 45 deaths caused by hazing in the past decade, according to HazingPrevention.org. Forty-four states in the US have laws that prohibit hazing while 13 states have laws that make hazing a felony when resulting in death or injury.
Tennessee is not one of those states, according to HazingPrevention.org. Lawmakers have made it clear that it is up to higher educational institutes to create a written policy and allows the institution to decide if it is a criminal offense and the institutional penalties that may be suffered as consequence of violation of the possible policy.
Most of these law changes are “reactive,” having changed after someone died from hazing, according to Gruver.
“Do not make someone die in the state of Tennessee for that law to be changed,” she said.
Gruver said they have made model legislation that covers hazing on a felony and misdemeanor level as well as to establish transparency. There are policies Gruver and Kowiak are planning to bring to Tennessee and want to see more students support.
Among the changes, they hope to enact Medical Amnesty laws. These laws do not make people liable—even if they have been participating in illegal acts, particularly drinking—as long as they call 911 to aid a person in need and then stay with that person until help is evident, according to Gruver and Kowiak.
Tennessee does not have this law, a fact that inspired many students attending the seminar to want to get that changed.
“I think I just had a feeling in my gut that I wanted to help…especially since we are one of the five states to not have it as a law,” said Evie Moore, a sophomore in Alpha Ki Omega.
Her sorority’s philanthropy mission focuses on domestic violence awareness and sexual assault prevention. Initiating the fight to end hazing is something Moore said could further be a part along with that mission.
“That’s a big part of our chapter—in not hurting our members, but building them up,” Moore said.
For Logan Foley, a senior in Phi Delta Theta, hearing the stories from the mothers’ perspectives instead of the news was the most impactful part of the night. His fraternity was the same one Max was in at LSU.
“It was more than a requirement for us. It was something I really wanted to hear—her story and her perspective,” said Foley. MTSU has had no hazing deaths. Although in 2015, fraternity chapters of Sigma Nu and Pi Kappa Phi were suspended after participating in alcohol hazing.
“We have a strict no hazing policy. There are chapters that have had issues with it, and we don’t want to be a part of that problem. We want to be a part of the solution,” said Foley. With the number of hazing deaths having increased over the past few decades, change in attitudes—like Moore’s and Foley’s to be proactive instead of passive—were a major part of Gruver’s and Kowiak’s session.
“But from this day forward, honestly, you guys can stop this cycle from happening…End it now,” said Gruver.
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