Ask an Expert About: Student Hazing & the Law
Updated August 31, 2021 • 4 min read
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Meet the Hazing Law Expert, Sean Callan
Sean Callan is the Founding Partner, Fraternal Law Partners
Despite legislation, policies, and shifts in social consciousness, hazing remains an issue on college campuses, and one that students need to be cognizant of. We contacted Fraternal Law Partners to help shed some light on the issue. Founded in 2012 and dedicated to legal issues pertaining to Greek life organizations, Fraternal Law Partners has been especially noteworthy for its activities in combatting hazing, including operation of an Anti-Hazing Hotline (1-888-NOT-HAZE).
Sean Callan, a Founding Partner of Fraternal Law Partners and an expert on legal issues surrounding hazing, offers some valuable tips on how to address and confront hazing. Sean advises national fraternities, sororities, foundations and house corporations on a wide range of business issues and is listed among The Best Lawyers in America in both Real Estate Law and Land Use and Zoning Law. He recently was named the 2019 Zoning and Land Use Lawyer of the Year (Cincinnati) by U.S. News & World Report.
Sean is also a regular contributor to the Fraternal Law Newsletter, a quarterly publication dedicated to legal issues relevant to Greek organizations, as well as a frequent speaker on a variety of issues confronting the Greek industry including risk management, hazing and chapter housing.
Sean is rated AV Preeminent in Martindale-Hubbell. He is also a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum, and Top Trial Lawyers in America. He has more than 20 years of experience in the practice of law. He earned his J.D. from the University of Cincinnati College of Law (Order of the Coif, 1993) and graduated with honors while earning a B.A. from Dartmouth College (1990). He is a member of the Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, Ohio State and Kentucky Bar Associations. Callan is also a member of Alpha Chi Alpha fraternity.
Or read on for our conversation with Sean Callan to learn more about hazing, the law, and the steps that we can all take to confront the issue:
Answers to Our Hazing Law Questions
How has your organization impacted outcomes of student hazing?
Sean Callan: Hazing prevention is central to Fraternal Law Partners’ mission to serve Greek letter organizations and their members. We further this mission in several ways. First, [I have] served on the Board of Directors of HazingPrevention.org (“HPO”), a 501(c)(3) devoted to its mission to empower people to prevent hazing. HPO fights hazing in many ways including running the National Hazing Prevention Week, the national Hazing Prevention Institute, ongoing webinars and publishing books and other materials addressing hazing issues. Fraternal Law Partners further supports HPO by sponsoring the Hank Nuwer Anti-Hazing Hero Award, a scholarship award given on an annual basis.
In addition to public service through charitable work, Fraternal Law operates the National Anti-Hazing Hotline. The National Anti-Hazing Hotline was established in 2006 and is currently sponsored by 46 national men’s and women’s Greek organizations. The sponsoring groups advertise the Hotline through their publications, websites, and at their meetings and conventions. The Hotline, 1-888-NOT-HAZE is set up so that anyone who believes they have knowledge of hazing or have been victims or know of hazing, can call and leave a voicemail describing what they know or are concerned about. The caller leaving the message may choose to remain anonymous or may provide their name and contact information for a follow up call. We also accept email reports and process them the same way as a voice report.
While the Hotline was established by Greek letter organizations, we have received reports of hazing from many groups and students outside of the Greek system. For instance, we recently processed a report regarding hazing on a high school football team. We have received reports from high school students, members of sports teams, bands, and in one case a military school. What this confirms is that while hazing is recognized as an issue within Greek letter organizations, the problem is endemic to many student groups at all levels of education and our firm’s efforts in this regard are not limited to Greek letter organizations.
What can colleges and universities do to prevent hazing?
Sean Callan: University response to hazing incidents have normally been reactive in response to a crisis. Retributive, reactive actions do contribute to prevention efforts, but in a very small way. Proactively, most universities require some sort of hazing training, which again, is helpful, but will not change behavior in the long term. I think the best way to reduce, mitigate, and perhaps even prevent hazing is through a broad, environmental change in community values and norms. You can see the success of this kind of public health response in the campaign against smoking. This is a long-term approach, but it is more likely to result in actual changes in behavior than one off suspensions or expulsions of groups on individual cases.
How can someone help a person seeking hazing resources and support?
Sean Callan: The first line of defense is within the chapter — in a properly functioning chapter the leadership should take strong action against hazing. Every fraternity has a zero tolerance policy toward hazing and chapter leadership knows this.
If chapter leadership is complicit in the hazing, then I would suggest contacting the national organization or the host institution. Again, every national organization and university has a zero tolerance policy toward hazing. Having worked with national organizations, I have seen first-hand how they respond to these kinds of reports — they respond with an active, close up investigation.
If none of that works for whatever reason, then I suggest contacting HPO which maintains a list of agencies and entities that can provide help in a hazing situation. A hazing victim or witness can also contact the Anti-Hazing Hotline described above.
What is the future of college attitudes and actions toward hazing?
Sean Callan: Colleges rightly have a no tolerance policy toward hazing. They are also concerned with lawsuits based on their failure to properly respond to reports of hazing. As a result, colleges take extreme action in response to unsubstantiated reports of hazing. For instance, we recently worked with a sorority that was accused of hazing on one occasion by one member. Upon receiving the report, the university involved shut down the chapter. After an investigation over a period of 6 months, as well as a full hearing before a disciplinary committee, the chapter was found not responsible for hazing. There was no evidence of hazing at all in that case. Yet, 150 young women lost out on the sorority experience for nearly a full school year. This kind of over reaction is not fair to innocent members, and likely unlawful.
In addition to heavy-handed responses, it seems colleges are looking at the structure of fraternities and sororities as the source of the hazing problem. If you talk to prevention experts, you will find that hazing is steeped in normative behaviors that require normative changes at a campus level. In other words, shutting down a fraternity might remove hazing from that chapter house, but it does nothing to change behaviors and does not solve the hazing problem. Hazing requires a public health type response where attitudes and norms are changed on a macro level.
Another aspect of prevention is the fact that the hazing dynamic often begins in high school (if not earlier). We see more and more students coming to college campus reporting that they have seen or suffered hazing in high school or before. In other words, these students are pre-disposed to engage in, or accept, hazing behavior as a result of experiences in high school. A change in normative behaviors on a college campus may well assist that student to change behavior by attending a school where the peer group is disapproving of this kind of hazing activity.
What would you say to someone who’s been a victim of hazing?
Sean Callan: The victim of hazing is in a very difficult situation. Generally speaking, a hazing victim desires to engage in the activity. It provides a feeling of worth and attachment to others going through the same process. If the person is struggling, and sees that this is an activity that they desire to escape, I would encourage them to seek help as described above.
If exposed to hazing as a witness, I encourage people to step forward and end it. Generally, that witness will need help — and I would again encourage that person to follow the steps set forth above.
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