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A well-kept secret on many campuses, Congress pulls hazing into spotlight

At least one hazing death was reported every year between 1959 and 2021, according to one database. But colleges and universities aren't required to report hazing to comply with federal law.

For eight years, Julie and Gary DeVercelly Sr. have been urging Congress to pass legislation to curb hazing on college campuses. And for eight years, they’ve been disappointed.

Their son died of acute alcohol poisoning because of a fraternity hazing ritual at Rider University in New Jersey in 2007. Years later, once the “fog” of the loss started to lift – a fog, Gary Sr. said, that only people who’ve lost a child can recognize – they set out to make sure what happened to their son never happened again.

They have a new reason to be hopeful.

A bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate late last month and formally announced by lawmakers Tuesday would force colleges and universities to disclose exactly how many hazing incidents happen on their campuses each year. The Senate’s version of the Stop Campus Hazing Act – sponsored by Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, the lead sponsor – would broaden the definition of hazing and require hazing incidents to be specifically included in colleges’ annual crime reports.

“Parents and students have a right to see how much of this is going on at colleges,” Klobuchar said in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY in her first public comments on the new bill.

Despite congressional dysfunction and years of calls for practical changes, the legislation seems to be the most likely iteration of anti-hazing legislation in recent years to succeed. It has drawn bipartisan support, and perhaps most importantly, the backing of influential Greek life groups. Though the hazing debate has raged for years, it was renewed this summer after Northwestern University’s campus was rocked by a scandal involving allegations of sexual abuse and racial discrimination.

In Northwestern hazing scandal: Could perpetrators also be considered victims?

What would proposed federal legislation on hazing do?

The new bill would compel colleges to publish their hazing prevention policies on their websites, along with exactly which organizations on campus – fraternities and sororities, for example – have violated those policies.

“Students should feel safe no matter what school they choose,” Cassidy said in a statement shared first with USA TODAY. “The Stop Campus Hazing Act improves transparency and ensures hazing is never ignored.”

Both private and public schools are required to publicly release their crime statistics each year by the Jeanne Clery Act, a federal law passed in 1990. Those reports include a variety of crime data, including burglary, arson and sexual abuse.

Yet even as hazing incidents have gripped campus communities in the last three decades – in many cases killing or permanently disabling young students, often prompting waves of lawsuits and leadership turnover – hazing has never been among the statistics which colleges and universities are mandated to report to comply with the federal law.

Timothy Piazza, 19, died during a fraternity's hazing process at Penn State in 2017. JOE HERMITT, AP

Hazing has been the “missing piece to the Clery Act,” Julie DeVercelly said in an interview with her husband, Gary Sr., on Monday.

“You can’t identify a problem if you don’t know what you’re looking at,” she said.

It’s not the first bipartisan congressional effort to curb hazing. Cassidy and Klobuchar, among other senators, introduced similar legislation in 2021. That bill, the Report and Educate About Campus Hazing Act, died in the last Congress.

The failure of that effort, according to Klobuchar and the DeVercellys, was attributable to overlapping pieces of anti-hazing legislation as well as silent pushback from schools and fraternities that didn’t want to report incidents.

“It used to be kind of hush-hush,” Klobuchar said. “Now, we’ve actually made headway.”

Fraternities, sororities back hazing proposal

The new legislation has been endorsed by a bundle of Greek life organizations, including the North American Interfraternity Conference and its member fraternities, along with the National Panhellenic Conference and its sororities. The Clery Center, a nonprofit that helps colleges and universities meet the federal reporting standards outlined in the Clery Act, is on board, too.

Jessica Mertz, the executive director of the Clery Center, said while campuses might already document some incidents that involve hazing in their Clery reports, they’re listed as other crimes. A sexual assault that occurs during a hazing incident, for example, isn't being documented separately as a hazing incident. The legislation would change that.

She called it a “common sense, noncontroversial bill.” When asked why previous federal anti-hazing legislation had stalled in recent years, she said she wish she knew exactly why.

“Hazing, historically, has really been minimized and has not been thought of as a crime, or as harmful as it is,” she said.

The legislation, according to the bill text, would expand the definition of hazing to include “any intentional, knowing or reckless act” committed against a student, "regardless of that student’s willingness to participate.” The act must be committed in connection with an organization – such as a club, fraternity or athletic team – and pose a “substantial risk … of physical injury, mental harm, or degradation.” New prevention training would also be rolled out on college campuses.

At least one hazing death was reported every year between 1959 and 2021, according to a database updated daily by Hank Nuwer, a hazing expert and emeritus professor at Franklin College.

Hazing is ingrained in team sports, Experts say they see increase in sexualized attacks

Every year federal legislation stalls, said Gary DeVercelly Sr., more people come into the DeVercellys' club – a club, he said, no one should be part of.

“No parent should have to bury their child,” he said, “especially to something as senseless and stupid as hazing.”

Zachary Schermele is a breaking news and education reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach him by email at Follow him on X at @ZachSchermele.

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