A Son’s Death. A Mother’s Quest. Hazing Could Become a Felony in Kentucky

Senate Bill 9, known as Lofton’s Law, awaits hearing in legislature

Thomas “Lofton” Hazelwood (Courtesy of Tracey Hazelwood)

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LEXINGTON — The death of 18-year-old Thomas “Lofton” Hazelwood sparked a conversation across Kentucky — one that, for many, was long overdue.

On Oct. 18, 2021, the first-year student was found unconscious at the University of Kentucky’s Farmhouse Fraternity house. He later passed away from alcohol poisoning.

“I had no clue what was going on. He was joining the Farmhouse, and we were told that it’s just a bunch of good old boys,” Tracey Hazelwood, Lofton’s mother, said in a recent telephone interview.

The time after her son’s death was marked by grief, shared by the community in Henderson County, where Lofton resided most of his life. Signs, t-shirts and text messages in support of Lofton supported his family through forever heartbreak, his mother said.

Two months after Lofton’s death, high school students proposed anti-hazing legislation during the annual Kentucky Youth Assembly mock government. Students approved the bill overwhelmingly, laying the foundation for Senate Bill 9, known as Lofton’s Law.

Since the bill was introduced last year, Tracey Hazelwood has engaged with students, community members and legislators on the dangers of hazing, a tradition that happens in secrecy and, she says, too often. It’s not limited to college campuses; just last month, an alleged hazing incident was reported among football players at Henderson County High School.

“Hopefully to God they’ll stop. My son passed away and I don’t want anybody else to ever go through this,” said Tracey Hazelwood. “We feel like we owe it to him to do this.”

Nolan Abdelsayed, a University of Kentucky senior and member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, agrees. Though he says he was never hazed, he supports anti-hazing legislation.

“If a parent sends their son off to college, I don’t think that they should die for no reason at all — just so they can make friends,” Abdelsayed said.

Lofton’s Law

Senate Bill 9 would make hazing a separate crime in Kentucky and establish penalties for intentional and reckless participation in hazing. Intentional participation in hazing that leads to serious injury or death would be a class D felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. Reckless participation in hazing would be a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and a $500 fine. The bill applies to students.

Kentucky would be the 14th state to classify hazing that leads to death or serious injury as a felony.

Sen. Robby Mills

As Lofton’s Law awaits a Thursday hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the sponsor, Sen. Robby Mills, R-Henderson, said he will introduce a committee substitute in response to concerns that the bill’s original language is too broad.

Cortney Lollar, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Kentucky, said the bill’s language is “very broad – in my view, overly broad – and has the potential to bring people under its scope that are not intended.”

SB 9 states that the misdemeanor statute would apply to anyone who “recklessly” participates in hazing. Prosecutors could argue that “reckless behavior” includes giving money to an entity that provides alcohol to minors, leaving room for potential misdemeanor charges to all dues-paying members, even if they didn’t attend the party, Lollar said.

A senior fraternity member who has previously attended parties where underaged students were drinking would have a difficult time arguing he was unaware that an underaged student would be drinking at a future party, for example, she said.

“Virtually any imaginable hazing incident can, and has been, addressed by existing laws,” Lollar said. “It is unclear to me what purpose is served by adding this new crime to our criminal code.”

Mills, the sponsor, said his committee substitute will tighten the language to avoid prosecutions of uninvolved people. Among the tweaks will be clarifying the definition of hazing “participant,” he said.

Mills acknowledged that wanton endangerment and other laws already on the books could be used to prosecute participants in hazing that causes injury or death. But Mills said hazing warrants its own law to emphasize the dangers and to send the message that “this is a serious issue and not something just to joke about.”

Making hazing a felony or serious misdemeanor will have a deterrent effect on students, who now think they face nothing worse than expulsion, Mills said. They would know that the consequences of hazing could include jail time, probation and a criminal record.

“That just gives you a bigger stick to say ‘don’t do this.’” he said. “If we can make the law stiffer to make sure that people know it’s a serious issue, and it saves a life, it’s worth it to me.”

Sean Callan, a lawyer who specializes in fraternity, sorority and student life organizations, agrees. He is a managing partner of Fraternal Law, a Cincinnati firm that provides counsel on hazing, crisis and incident management. Callan commends SB 9 for its focused language.

“If someone is severely injured or killed by some of this activity, it needs to be a felony,” Callan said. “I know people in the fraternity community will support something like this.”

An unmarked fraternity house on the UK campus was formerly occupied by Sigma Alpha Epsilon. The chapter’s registered student organization status was revoked due to student conduct abuses, including misuse of alcohol, harm and threat of harm and failure to comply with COVID-19 policies, among other charges. (Mariah Kendell/Kentucky Lantern)

Hazing on Kentucky’s campuses

The prevalence of hazing is not easily captured. There is no formal method of tracking it and institutions are not required to report hazing behaviors to other entities. Nonetheless, an estimated 26% of college students belonging to campus groups have experienced at least one hazing behavior, according to a 2018 study conducted by the University of Maine.

Between 1959 and 2021, there was at least one hazing death a year in the U.S. involving a school, club or organization, according to journalist Frank Nuwer, who tracks hazing deaths.

The Lantern filed open records requests for student conduct records with four universities. The University of Louisville did not respond. At UK and Eastern Kentucky University there had been 25 reported instances of hazing since Jan. 1, 2021, according to the records. Western Kentucky University reported no incidents of hazing.

The University of Kentucky received 13 hazing reports in the timeframe. Approximately 5,500 UK undergraduates belong to 39 Greek organizations.

  • Ten reports involved hazing in nine fraternity chapters. Alleged offenses included requiring new members to “sit in a basement with pillowcases on their head for an hour or so,” purchase alcohol and wear a fanny pack with “smelling salts, condoms and matches” to present to older members when asked.
  • Four reports concerned Farmhouse Fraternity, where Lofton Hazelwood was found unresponsive. Investigations led by UK’s police force and student conduct office found that Hazelwood consumed approximately 18 one-ounce shots of bourbon within 45 minutes. Although no signs of physical coercion were found in connection to Hazelwood’s death, UK’s report detailed multiple occurrences of other hazing activities within the fraternity. Interviews revealed that new members were subject to line-ups and berating and expected to provide personal servitude and participate in illegal activities, among other things.
  • Two documents reported hazing in a sorority. The investigations did not find the chapter responsible.

According to UK’s student conduct website, 11 of the 25 registered fraternity chapters are on some sort of restriction, ranging from disciplinary probation to revocation of registered student organization status for previous offenses of campus conduct.

Western Kentucky University tracked zero reports of hazing since Jan. 1, 2021. As of the spring 2022 semester, the university had 2,203 students in Greek life, according to publicly available records.

Eastern Kentucky University had 12 reports of hazing in the timeframe. As of spring 2022, the university had fewer than 1,000 students in Greek life, according to publicly available records.

  • Ten reports involved fraternity chapters. Alleged offenses included drunken driving, sexual assaults at parties, humiliation and drug use.
  • One report was filed against a sorority, where individuals allegedly “required and coerced members” to attend events surrounding alcohol. The report showed screenshots in the chapter’s group message where a member wrote “… if a frat is holding a mixer for us and you’re going out in Richmond that (night), you’re expected to stay there for at least an hour.”
  • Another report detailed alleged hazing in the university’s club hockey team after an EKU police officer found members “taking a sign from a gas station,” according to a misconduct report form. The officer found a 36-point “scavenger hunt” list that asked new team members to deliver food and alcohol, sneak onto a sorority dormitory floor and shave an eyebrow — among other activities — in exchange for “points.”

The results of these incident reports were not provided. Aside from EKU’s club hockey team, each organization involved is a recognized student organization.

Students: Hazing legislation is “necessary”

Students who agreed to be interviewed by the Lantern said Lofton’s Law is a logical response to hazing on college campuses. More than a dozen members of Greek organizations declined to be interviewed.

Alicia Gowan

Alicia Gowan, a University of Kentucky junior and member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, said, “Fraternity culture from the outside looks great when they’re promoting philanthropy, involvement on campus and high GPAs.” On the inside of these organizations, she believes that most men have likely experienced some form of hazing.

Lawson Hill

Lawson Hill, an Eastern Kentucky University freshman and member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity, considers hazing less of a problem than it used to be, but says legislation is still necessary.

“A lot of guys I know are legacies, which means their dads were in (fraternities) a long time ago. They tell me some of the stories, and I think ‘wow, that could kill somebody,’” he said. “I couldn’t imagine shoving a bottle down someone’s throat. That’s just inhumane.”

Shannon Chen, a freshman UK student and new member of Alpha Gamma Delta, heard about hazing rumors through classmates, including a story of a pledge who was “treated horribly.”

She said fraternity members “pay what? A thousand dollars to get their car thrown up in? If the bill goes through, at least the top members will be like ‘we can’t do this.’”

With support from their community, the Hazelwood family is creating an endowment to fund scholarships for Henderson County residents. Two students going into agriculture will receive $5,000 scholarships; there will be a $2,000 scholarship for a trade school student.

Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: info@kentuckylantern.com. Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter.

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