By Matt Wiley
It’s been four years since the sudden, tragic death of New Tampa resident Harrison Kowiak, but his family continues to fight to end “hazing,” which they know to be the cause of Harrison’s death — and the deaths of numerous other college students over the years. Harrison’s mother and sister recently brought their battle to Washington, D.C., to support legislation to help end hazing in fraternities nationwide, if possible.
Harrison, a 2007 Wharton High grad, was attending college on an academic and golf scholarship at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, NC, in 2008. A member of the school’s golf team and a Theta Chi pledge, Harrison was hoping to become a brother in the fraternity. Instead of granting him entry into the fraternity, however, Harrison’s initiation activities ended up taking his life.
“In North Carolina, there are no laws that consider hazing a felony,” says Lianne Kowiak, Harrison’s mother of her son’s death. “The hazing was considered a misdemeanor.”
U.S. Representative Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who introduced the “Halting Hazing Act of 2012” to Congress, could change that, if her bill beomes law.
Harrison’s 14-year-old sister Emma and Lianne traveled to our nation’s capital in September to support the new legislation.
“I got a call just after Labor Day, inviting us to the press conference to announce the introduction of the bill,” says Lianne. The conference was held at the U.S. Capitol building on September 22 (see photo).
Also in attendance were the parents of Robert Champion, Jr., the Florida A & M University drummer who also was killed in a hazing accident in 2011. Lianne says that the two families met and shared their stories.
Wilson’s bill, if passed, would deny federal financial aid to students who are punished by colleges or states for committing acts that are determined to be forms of hazing. If passed, the bill also will punish states that do not enact anti-hazing laws, by denying federal transportation funding.
Lianne also sat in on a panel discussion about the bill during the 42nd annual Legislative Conference, in which several national fraternities and sororities, students and universities were in attendance, as was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who served as the moderator for the hazing panel
“The fraternities and sororities that were there were very supportive,” says Lianne. “They recognize the issue and realize changes need to occur.”
Since Harrison’s death on November 17, 2008, the surviving members of this Arbor Greene family have been doing all that they can to try to prevent dangerous hazing activities from taking place by raising awareness in local high schools, specifically Carrollwood Day School on W. Bearss Ave., where Emma is a freshman.
To help warn students of the dangers of hazing, Lianne spoke to the class of 2012 at CDS twice during the 2011-12 school year, and will be doing follow-up discussions with the same class this year, as those students prepare to go on to their respective colleges. She also addressed a group of Wharton students in May of this year.
“I try to tell them to just be aware of what’s going on around them when they get to college,” Lianne explains. “There is a lot of peer pressure when students want to join Greek or other on-campus organizations. I want the students to know that if hazing is occurring, they can get help, and to not be just another bystander.”
Since Harrison’s death, the family filed suit against the national Theta Chi fraternity, including the Lenoir-Rhyne chapter and several of its members, as well as the university. The suit was settled out of court in August.
Lianne says that the settlement funds will go towards educating students and parents about the dangers of hazing, which Lianne has already begun by purchasing more than 1,000 brochures from HazingPrevention. org to hand out when she speaks at schools. She also was planning to participate in a hazing panel discussion and address students at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, on October 30. In addition, the Kowiaks have purchased three benches for Wharton’s memorial garden, in which Emma has painted three leaves on the garden’s wall in her brother’s memory.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare to wake up to that phone call about their child,” she explains. “As a mom, I feel the need to raise as much awareness as possible. It’s the only way this issue will get into the spotlight.”
According to HazingPrevention.org, 55 percent of college students involved in clubs, teams and organizations experience hazing, and, since February of 2010 (almost two years after Harrison’s death) alone, 96 students have died as a result of hazing.
Just within the past several weeks, another hazing-related death was reported at Fresno State University in California, due to “acute intoxication.” The fraternity the student was pledging just happened to be Theta Chi, another chapter of the same fraternity Harrison was rushing.
For more info about preventing college and high school hazing, visit HazingPrevention.org and StopHazing.org. If you have a child starting college soon, or one that already is enrolled, it’s important to check if any hazing or dangerous activities have occurred, or have been reported, at that university. If you know of hazing occurring, say something!