Vermont Lawmakers Weigh Crackdown On Campus Hazing
By Adam Lisberg, Special to Stateline
BURLINGTON -- Corey LaTulippe's initiation as a University of Vermont hockey player was supposed to last just one night. On an early October evening, LaTulippe and eight other freshmen from the Catamounts spent a dazed and hellish evening in the team captain's basement, where they were made to strip naked, grab each other's genitals and drink until they vomited.
The physical abuse lasted only a few hours -- but the reverberations are still echoing throughout Vermont. The university, which at first suspended the players for one game each, later canceled the remainder of the hockey season. Hockey is practically a religion in Vermont, and the Catamounts are the high priests. So Vermonters were shocked when the school abruptly cancelled the last 15 games of its season.
LaTulippe, 19, who unsuccessfully tried to warn the school before the party took place, is now pursuing a high-stakes lawsuit. And the state Legislature, which last year seemed lukewarm about making hazing a crime, is now taking a close look at whether Vermont needs an anti-hazing law.
"We hate to see an incident happen to revive a bill that might otherwise stay on the wall," said Sen. Richard Sears. "But sometimes that's what happens."
Forty-one states have laws against hazing, but some Vermont lawmakers who considered such a measure last year were troubled by the idea that teenage pranks could lead to a criminal charge. State Attorney General William Sorrell offered only halfhearted support for the bill, believing that prosecutors could use other laws to deal with hazing that got out of hand. The state Senate passed a bill that carried no criminal penalties, and the House showed little interest in the matter.
That was before LaTulippe made his allegations public in his lawsuit, filed in federal court in Burlington on Dec. 10. The next day, the university asked Sorrell to investigate what happened to LaTulippe and how the school handled his complaints.
Sorrell's investigation confirmed LaTulippe's allegations about the initiation night, and found that freshman hockey players had undergone similar sometimes worse hazing in seasons past. He concluded the university didn't do enough to find out what really happened to LaTulippe. And he said he now believes Vermont needs a tough anti-hazing law.
"We think what happened to Corey LaTulippe is a crime," Sorrell said. "If there was an anti-hazing statute on the books right now, we would most definitely be pursuing prosecutions."
Sorrell's prosecutors concluded they couldn't make any serious charges stick against the players who organized the initiation in part because the freshmen weren't physically forced to take part. Sorrell reluctantly decided to pursue only a narrow charge of furnishing alcohol to minors.
An Alfred University study released last August showed that 79 percent of 2,000 college athletes surveyed had been subjected to hazing. Half of those surveyed said they drank alcohol during team initiations.
The University of Vermont has declined to discuss many specifics of what happened to LaTulippe, citing the legal action and a federal law protecting student privacy. However, school officials say they want to learn from their mistakes and make the University of Vermont a national leader in preventing hazing.
"It is my hope that everyone who cares about young people will use our experience as a wake-up call," said University President Judith Ramaley. "Hazing is an entrenched, widespread problem. It is deeply embedded in our society, and will be a real challenge to eradicate in intercollegiate sports."
That comes too late for LaTulippe, though. He was cut from the team in early October, less than two weeks after the initiation party, and now plays junior hockey for a team in Rochester, N.Y. Last month, LaTulippe's father spoke before a Vermont House committee that is giving new attention to the anti-hazing bill.
"Unless we change the totally outdated cultural point of view that spawns hazing, we will go backward as a state," Stephan LaTulippe said. "There is no better beginning than legislation that is tough, realistic and frightening to those who would haze. Please notice I did not say that legislation will stop hazing. Anti-hazing legislation is only one vital part of the solution."
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