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Crime & Courts

State Senate debates hazing as a crime

Screenshot 2022-02-04 051448.jpg
Legislative Research Council
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SDPB, Joshua Haiar
From left: Sen. David Johnson, Sen. Mike Rohl, Sen. Timothy Johns

In a close vote, the South Dakota Senate has passed a bill that proposes to make hazing a crime. It now heads to the House side. The prime sponsor says hazing has been an ongoing problem in the United States, with multiple deaths attributed to initiations into school groups and fraternities.

Sen. Mike Rohl calls hazing “institutionalized bullying,” given its long known history in United States colleges and universities.

Rohl introduced the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee and handed out literature on tragic hazing incidents.

He alone testified for the bill. And the lone opponent was Terra Larson, a lobbyist for the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She said much of hazing behavior is already a crime, and the hazing behavior that is not criminal should remain so.

“Right now the way that this language states, is that if somebody is subjected to an activity that causes an extreme mental stress, that constitutes hazing, and that could be a Class 1 misdemeanor even without any type of bodily injury,” Larson said.

Senate Judiciary passed the bill out of committee, and the next day it landed on the Senate floor.

There it was disparaged by Sen. David Johnson, who spoke while reading a case study of a hazing victim.

“He was subjected to peer pressure. Oh, no. Peer pressure. Hmph. Boy. That just…just doesn’t sound that serious to me,” Johnson said.

He said students who go through hazing do so voluntarily, to join a fraternity or other group.

“I want to bring up two words that we should be thinking about here,” he said. “‘Personal responsibility.’ What about that?”

Johnson said the law would hand a legal cause of action to fragile students who regret their behavior the morning after.

Sen. Timothy Johns, a lawyer and retired judge, responded that a jury considering a crime of hazing would look at how a reasonable person would react to being hazed.

“When you look at all the facts of the case, whether objectively any reasonable man would suffer extreme mental distress because of the actions,” Johns said.

The full Senate moved the bill along by a vote of 19 to 16.