PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A bill that would make hazing at schools, colleges and universities a crime and set a punishment has advanced through the South Dakota State Senate, though not without some criticism.
The bill, which passed previously through the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 7-0 vote on January 25, passed through the Senate at large on a much more narrow margin of 19-16.
SB-72 outlines a process in which a person who commits hazing during a student’s initiation into an organization at a school, college or university can be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor, a Class 1 misdemeanor or a Class 6 felony, depending on factors relating to intent, malice and injury.
The sponsor of this bill is Sen. Michael Rohl (R-Aberdeen), who explained to KELOLAND News via email, his purpose for bringing the bill.
Having played sports and having been in Greek Life I know hazing can happen. We frequently talk about protecting our kids from different “hypothetic” scenarios that might happen, and I felt it was important we protect them from something we know happens.Sen. Michael Rohl
Rohl says that broadly speaking, this bill seeks to “provide clarity that South Dakota won’t tolerate hazing,” which he says is institutionalized bullying.
With such broadly positive intent behind the bill, it may seem odd that it passed along such narrow margins, only three votes. One of those no votes, Sen. Lee Schoenbeck (R-Watertown), President Pro Tempore of the Senate, explained his opposition in a morning phone call, pointing to a hand full of words as being the issue.
Those words are “subjects the student to extreme mental stress.”
The full sentence these words are a part of comprises the first four lines of the bill, and reads as follows:
“A person commits an act of hazing when, during a student’s initiation or admission into any organization operating in connection with a school, college, or university, the person engages in conduct involving forced activity that endangers the physical health or safety of the student or that subjects the student to extreme mental stress.“
Schoenbeck says the idea of ‘extreme mental stress’ is “very subjective,” and that such a judgment is entirely defined by how the victim sees the event.
This is an issue for Schoenbeck due to the fact that this is a criminal statute, not a civil one, and that it’s aimed at young people. “It’s a criminal charge to hang around a kid’s neck,” he said. Ultimately, he thinks the inclusion of mental stress makes the law too open to interpretation.
Schoenbeck stressed that he was not in opposition to the idea of a bill to make hazing a crime, or to the penalties suggested, and said that he does not have an issue with any other aspect of the bill. Despite the fact that it passed through the Senate, Schoenbeck says he doubts it makes it in the House as written.
Rohl agrees with this sentiment.
“I think that’s probably accurate,” said Rohl of the idea that his current bill would fail in the House.
When asked about Schoenbeck’s issue with the bill, Rohl didn’t get defensive. “I think it’s a fair criticism,” he said, adding that his team had already drafted an amendment (now in the hands of the Legislative Research Council) for the House Judiciary Committee in hopes of easing concerns about subjectivity.
While Rohl says he thinks the inclusion of mental health is important “to capture the creativity of hazers,” he also says that this is an evolving process and that his goal isn’t to be a legislator that is unwilling to negotiate or alter bills. “My goal is to constantly better law, and sometimes that’s step by step. If the house alters the bill and it’s better than current law, I will gladly support that change,” he said.
Rohl added that several other states have implemented this law with the exact same language without facing any issues, but that a law that deals with physical damage is better than no law at all. He also said this potential for interpretation is why it is important to have reasonable prosecutors and judges.
One amendment was added to the bill prior to its passage in the Senate. The added language is: “If a person is charged with hazing under this section, no other violation under this chapter may be charged for the same course of conduct.”
Rohl says that the amendment was added to make sure prosecutors don’t stack up multiple charges for the same action if multiple could apply.
The bill will now advance to the Senate Judiciary, where it will need to be approved before reaching the full House. If passed there, it will ultimately reach the desk of Governor Kristi Noem, who will then decide whether to sign it into law.