By Joby Richard and Drew White
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE— The “Max Gruver Act,” named for the 18-year-old LSU fraternity pledge who died last September, cleared a first hurdle Wednesday toward making hazing a felony after legislators heard emotional testimony from the victim’s parents.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, would elevate hazing from a misdemeanor and provide penalties of $1,000, imprisonment for up to six months, or both, to any individual participating in the hazing of another.
Under current law, hazing penalties are fines of only $10 to $100 and up to 30 days in jail. If serious bodily injury or death occurs, a fine of up to $10,000 can be issued and a maximum five years in jail.
“Imagine having your child taken away from you,” Gruver’s mother, Rae Ann Gruver, said in the packed committee room. “We don’t want any other family to experience this.”
She said that her house, once “full of laughing friends and now full of sadness,” will never be the same after her younger children’s loss of their big brother.
Steve Gruver, the victim’s father, read a quote from Max’s journal: “God works in funny ways…He does bad to ultimately create good.” Referring to Landry’s bill, he added that “something very bad happened to our son, and HB 78 will ultimately create good for the state and the rest of the country.”
After they spoke, the House Criminal Justice Administration Committee cleared the bill unanimously, sending it to the House floor.
LSU police arrested 10 members of Phi Delta Theta fraternity in October in connection with Gruver’s death. Police said he had been prodded inside the fraternity house to consume six times what would be the legal alcohol limit for driving.
Last week, an East Baton Rouge grand jury indicted one of the fraternity members for negligent homicide, a felony, and three others on misdemeanor hazing charges.
The Gruvers have not said whether they intend to sue LSU or the fraternity over their son’s death, and they declined to discuss that after the hearing.
A Senate committee advanced a bill on Tuesday that would allow families of people who die from hazing to sue for punitive damages if they can show that colleges or Greek organizations were negligent.
LSU announced Wednesday that it would rescind its registration of Phi Delta Theta through at least 2032. The national chapter acknowledged that members engaged in behavior that violated LSU’s Code of Student Conduct and removed the chapter’s charter in September.
Maxwell Gruver was a pledge in the now-defunct fraternity when he died in the early morning after the hazing incident on Sept. 13. He came to LSU from Roswell, Georgia, and planned to major in mass communications.
Gruver’s autopsy revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.495. Medical experts consider someone at risk of death when his blood alcohol level reaches 0.31, which is almost four times the legal limit for driving.
Gruver’s mother recounted Wednesday the now-familiar details of what happened to her son on the night of his death.
Pledges, formally called associate members, were summoned to the Phi Delta Theta house, where they participated in an activity called “Bible study.”
In “Bible study,” if the pledges gave the wrong answer to a question about the chapter’s history or the Greek alphabet, they were expected to take a “pull” from a bottle of Diesel, a 190-proof grain liquor. A “pull’, said Mrs. Gruver, meant taking a swig from the bottle until instructed to stop.
The young men also were forced to sit against a wall in a dark hallway with a flashing strobe light while active members walked across their legs.
Fraternity members placed an unresponsive Gruver on a couch downstairs after the “Bible study.” Even with his obvious signs of distress, members did not alert authorities for hours. Gruver died during the night due to alcohol intoxication and aspiration.
“By strengthening hazing laws to a felony, it will deter young people, end this culture, and save lives,” Mrs. Gruver testified.
Matthew Naquin, 20, of Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas, received the negligent homicide felony charge and could face up to five years in prison. Police reports and witnesses accused Naquin of being the most aggressive member during the hazing incident. Naquin has pleaded not guilty.
Sean-Paul Gott, 21, Matthew Isto, 19, and Patrick Andrew Forde, 21, were charged with misdemeanor hazing counts punishable by up to 30 days in jail.
LSU President King Alexander created a Greek Life Task Force after Gruver’s death, and it released a 28-point corrective plan in late February.
Gruver’s parents complained, however, that the recommendations offered “only the appearance of reform.”
Alexander adopted all of the policy changes, including the creation of advisory boards of community and alumni members to supervise pledge activities, amnesty for students who report medical emergencies involving alcohol and drugs, and a ban on hard liquor and communal sources of alcohol at events.
Alexander also made additional policy changes, including immediate expulsion of students found responsible for hazing and the right of university officials to randomly search fraternity and sorority houses.
Landry’s initially bill called for a fine of up to $100,000 if an officer of an organization knew about hazing activities and failed to report them. It was amended 9-6 to reduce the fine to $10,000 to avoid bankrupting Greek organizations, even though Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore described lowering the fine to $10,000 as “a joke.”
Brooke McCulley, an LSU student who befriended Gruver, argued that hazing will happen until the the law reflects the gravity of the crime.
She said that in the weeks after Gruver’s death, there was “animosity” on campus. “Some focused on social reparations rather than the death of a peer,” she said, adding that that students were conditioned to seeing hazing dangers as normal.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, expressed concern that educational institutions were given an exemption in the initial version of the bill and therefore not subject to any fines for hazing incidents on campus. James argued that the bill is “letting universities off a tad bit easy.”
The committee amended the bill to include educational institutions as organizations that could be held liable.
Landry, who was rush chair of her college sorority, said students “can still bond without going through a life-threatening situation… sadistic rituals.”