AUSTIN(KXAN) — Parents who say their children died after hazing incidents tied to university student groups are supporting a bill in the Texas House aiming to tighten Texas’ laws around hazing.
They testified before the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Higher Education Wednesday in favor of HB1482, which is still in committee. The bill was authored by Rep. J.M. Lozano, R-Portland.
“Texas’ current hazing laws are unclear and do not give adequate guidelines of what constitutes hazing,” Lozano told the committee.
The bill would require schools to create a report outlining any disciplinary action they have taken against hazing in the past three years and to make that report available to students several weeks before the start of the semester.
It would also eliminate language that limits the definition of hazing to physical conduct. Additionally, it would make it easier for hazing cases to be prosecuted — especially in cases where the alleged hazing did not occur in the same place where the university is located.
“It’s not acceptable in the state of Texas”
Shawn Cumberland testified — he is the father of UT student Nicky Cumberland who was killed after a car crash that happened while Nicky was coming home from a retreat with the Texas Cowboys. The student driving the car fell asleep at the wheel and Nicky was ejected from the vehicle. He spent a month afterward braindead in the hospital.
Shawn explained that his son was valedictorian at his Houston high school and headed to UT, where he joined the Kappa Sigma fraternity. After excelling in the fraternity, members nominated Nicky in the fall of 2018 to join the Texas Cowboys — an all-male student group with representatives from many Greek and non-Greek areas of campus.
On Sept. 30, Nicky went with Texas Cowboys members to an “offsite initiation” for their organization in Lampasas County. Shawn said he has now learned that Nicky’s “pants were dropped and he was paddled so hard that four weeks later, my wife and I saw the marks on his backside from them [while he was in the hospital].”
He added that the other young men at the retreat were:
“….in such a frenzy that they bit the head off of a live hampster.”
After talking to different people about the retreat, Shawn believes that Cowboys’ new members were each led by the original student groups that nominated them for initiation activities, each with varying degrees of hazing. Shawn believes Nicky was with the Kappa Sigma group of the Cowboys during the retreat.
“They let them go to different parts outside of the vision of the others in a way they can dish out — however harsh they want — on their own,” Shawn reiterating what was told to him by a Cowboys member.
“My son, he had some inkling he was going to be in pain, because he explained it to his girlfriend Clio, that he was very afraid that he was going to get hurt, so why would he have thought that?”
The Cumberland family believes hazing played a role in their son’s death and asked UT officials to institute specific reforms to prevent hazing and change the culture at the Texas Cowboys. Among their allegations, the Cumberland family says Nicky and other new members of the group were in a setting with lots of alcohol, paddled and forcefully sleep deprived.
“It’s not acceptable at my university, it’s not acceptable in the state of Texas,” said Shawn, who is also a UT alum. As he’s traveled around the country in the past few months — meeting with other parents and advocates about hazing reform — he has been disappointed to hear other people tell him that the University of Texas has a bad reputation.
Shawn is hoping this new bill pushes more people in Texas to look at hazing as a serious concern.
“If a university takes no actions, even though it has policies on its books, nothing will happen. If criminal prosecutors do nothing, or go very light when there’s been obvious violations, that sends a signal that it’s OK. And that’s why we have a pervasive amount of hazing that’s occurring in these organizations.”
“We believe that the pain we have suffered through the loss of the child is not something we would wish on an enemy, this is the most extreme pain, so for us if we can help avoid even one incident its really worth our time.”
The Texas Cowboys maintain that neither alcohol or hazing contributed to Nicky’s death, though the Texas Cowboys judiciary board unanimously voted to expel four students and suspend three from the organization.
The Texas Cowboys Alumni Association launched its own third-party investigation into the crash and found that neither hazing nor alcohol played a role — though they noted that they did find that behavior had occured at the retreat that violated UT’s hazing policy and was “in direct violation” of Texas Cowboys values.
UT Austin has launched one student conduct investigation after Nicky’s death, which is still ongoing, and the UT Austin Police Department has launched a criminal investigation which is also still ongoing.
A Texas Tech student whose freshman year was cut short
Debbie Debrick, the mother of Dalton Debrick also testified before the committee. Dalton was an incoming freshman at Texas Tech University in August of 2014 when he rushed Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity event in August of 2014.
On August 4, 2014, Dalton died as the result of what Debbie calls an “alochol fueled hazing incident” on his fraternity bid night. A wrongful death lawsuit states that Dalton was blindfolded and forced to drink large amounts of alcohol. He died from acute alcohol poisoning. His body was found the next morning.
Debbie explained that after Dalton’s Death, Texas Tech expelled two students and suspended four people for hazing. Alpha Sigma Phi’s nationals shut down the TTU chapter within two days of her son’s death, Debbie said.
Tearfully, she told the committee her son’s death happened six days after he turned 18 and seven days after he moved into his dorm.
“I pray that my son’s story will continue to make a difference in kids lives and organizations,” she said to the committee. “I ask all of you to get this bill pushed through.”
Calling for more enforcement
Also testifying for the committee was Jay Maguire, the founder of the nonprofit Parents and Alumni for Student Safety. He is a UT alum and a faculty advisor to UT’s Zeta Psi fraternity. Maguire supports this bill as well, explaining that his nonprofit was founded in response to a spike in hazing deaths across the country.
Maguire said he has been working with other concerned alumni to try and address hazing concerns on Texas campuses.
He believes this bill will target, “the lack of prosecutions for hazing incidents.”
Maguire explained that many events that spur allegations of hazing — like in Nicky Cumberland’s case — happen in counties that are far away from the county where students actually live and attend school.
Maguire noted that Lampasas County, where the Cowboys retreat happened, would be less equipped than Travis County to prosecute a hazing case. He sees the bill as removing a hurdle for those in Texas trying to prosecute instances of hazing.
He also sees it as a way to make information about hazing more accessible to anyone on Texas campuses.
“Parents and prospective members and students should have the ability to find out if an organization has been investigated and sanctioned for violations,” he said, adding that this bill expands the current requirements in Texas for universities to report hazing.
“What’s been lacking is alumni advisors like me paying close attention to their groups and their behavior and helpign to hold our peers and groups accountable.”
Judson Horras, the president and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, also testified in support of the bill, noting that his organization is interested in increasing the penalties for those who force student consumption of alcohol and drugs.
“There are a lot of fraternities student groups that need this bill,” Horras said. “The next level is putting pressure on people to prosecute.”