Not just college pranks [Editorial]

University System of Maryland officials are considering stiffening the penalties for college fraternities whose initiation rites cross the line from good-natured teasing to hazing that threatens life and limb. Pledging to join a campus fraternity or sorority has always involved a certain amount of ritualized torment for those who would cross the burning sands to full membership. Mostly it's all in good fun. But the merriment is apt to fade quickly if the antics lead to someone being seriously injured or killed or leave lasting psychological scars. Maryland's public colleges and universities shouldn't tolerate that kind of conduct, and neither should lawmakers.

The issue was recently thrown into sharp relief by reports of extreme hazing at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore, where pledges to the school's chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity allegedly were beaten with paddles, forced to consume dangerous quantities of alcohol and made to stand in barrels filled with ice water. The school suspended the fraternity through the spring after investigating the matter, but although police and the Wicomico County state's attorney's office are still looking into the incident, no charges have been filed against any of the participants.

Last year, Towson University announced it had suspended its No. 1-ranked cheerleading team over allegations of hazing, though officials didn't specify the charges against the team. In 2007 and 2008, fraternity chapters at the University of Maryland College Park were suspended after allegations of hazing that included forced drinking, confinement and injuries. And in 2002, a College Park freshman died of alcohol poisoning after fraternity members allegedly forced him to drink, then waited hours before calling 911.

When hazing involves physical brutality, injury and death, it's no longer a mere college prank, regardless of how hallowed by time and tradition such rituals are. It's a crime for which there should be severe penalties aimed at deterring continued abuses. No matter how deeply ingrained in fraternity and sorority culture hazing may be, campus Greek organizations are not above the law, and their members need to be held accountable for their actions — something school officials and law enforcement apparently have been reluctant to do up to now.

That's why a bill in this year's General Assembly that would increase the criminal fine for hazing from $500 to $5,000 is a needed first step toward addressing this problem. It would send a signal that Maryland recognizes abusive hazing as a serious offense not to be excused or overlooked because of the youth of those involved.

Some may object that anyone pledging a fraternity or sorority can easily remove themselves from risk simply by refusing to participate. Why, after all, would anyone compel themselves to accede to a degrading ritual that frequently amounts to little more than a voluntary act of self-humiliation? Where's the fun in that?

Such questions obviously don't take into account the social insecurities, emotional anxieties, craving for peer acceptance and impaired reasoning abilities of juvenile minds that are still developing. College is a time of exploration, and young people do all sorts of crazy things that mature adults wouldn't. That's why schools try to protect them from the consequences of their own bad choices.

But the way to do that isn't by condoning behaviors that put their lives and those of others in jeopardy. Abusive hazing does both, and Maryland's institutions of higher learning need to set clear limits on what is acceptable, then aggressively enforce the rules. Dismissing the danger as an inevitable risk of campus life or attributing it to just "boys being boys" — or girls being girls — simply isn't good enough when young lives are at stake.

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