By Matt Wiley

More than four years after her son Harrison’s hazing death, New Tampa resident Lianne Kowiak’s voice does not waver, as she tells her family’s story to a University of Tampa (UT) fraternity. Although heart wrenching and tragic, Kowiak’s speech delivers a short, but powerful message: “If you see something, say something.”

During a UT Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) member education program at UT on April 8 (inside the Reeves Theater on UT’s downtown Tampa campus), Kowiak spoke to a crowd of 90 people —most of whom were members of SAE and other UT fraternities or sororities — of Harrison’s life and experiences leading up to the accident that took his life while attending Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, VA.

“First and foremost, I wish I were able to be here under different circumstances,” Kowiak said shortly after taking the podium. “I never in my life thought that I would be going around talking about hazing. But, it’s very important to spread the word (about it). Whether it’s one of you, five of you or 50 of you, if you can spread the word to your friends, colleagues, coworkers and family, I would be so very grateful.”

Seated in the front row of the theater were 15 people close to the Kowiak family, 10 of whom were among Harrison’s closest friends who graduated with him from New Tampa’s Paul R. Wharton High in 2007.

Kowiak began by describing her son and his relationship with his family and community before leaving for Lenoir-Rhyne with a golf scholarship. Several other members of the school’s golf team also were members of Theta Chi, the same fraternity that Harrison decided to join.

“He said, ‘Mom, I just want to have that full college-life experience,’” Kowiak recalled, the first time Harrison mentioned wanting to join the fraternity. “He just wanted to get out there and make the best of (college) and take advantage of all of the different activities.”

In November of 2008, the Kowiaks received a call late one night from a member of the fraternity that an accident had occurred involving Harrison and that he was in the hospital. Details of the accident continued to transform from an injury sustained while playing football on campus to finally being from a “team-building,” or hazing, exercise in an empty field 20 miles away from the school.

“This event, I will share with you,” Kowiak said. “It was called ‘bull-dogging.’ I’m going to tell you the story, but not to scare you. But, I need to share it with you, so that if you see (something like) it happening, you can stop it.”

Harrison and another pledge were instructed to run from one end of the field to the other in the dark. While doing so, members of the fraternity, dressed completely in black, would tackle them while they ran. When Harrison was tackled, he suffered a severe head injury and slipped into a coma. His family never had a chance to speak with him again.

“I ask each and every one of you, if you see something that doesn’t look right or just doesn’t feel good in your gut, speak up and do something about it,” Kowiak said to the crowd. “Do the ‘Mom Test.’ Would your mom approve? If there’s a live camera videotaping, is this something that you’d want to see on the evening news?”

Following her speech, Kowiak stressed that she doesn’t think that fraternities and sororities should be shut down, but that exercises similar to the one that took her son’s life should not be something that students must go through to be part of any group.

Hazing has made headlines again recently at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando. UCF stopped all Greek Life initiation activities in February following reports of hazing within multiple fraternities.

Although not technically hazing, Kowiak also mentioned Rutgers University in Newark, NJ, in her speech, a school which has come under fire after recent videos of former head basketball coach Mike Rice verbally and physically abusing players during practice surfaced. Rice was fired and several other Rutgers officials, including athletic director Tim Pernetti, have resigned in the wake of the scandal.

Kowiak was asked to share her story by Trevor Hyssong, president of the UT interfraternity council and vice president of member development of UT’s Sig Ep chapter. Hyssong and several other Sig Ep members met Kowiak in Atlanta during the Southeastern Interfraternity Conference, which was held in February, where she gave a risk-management speech.

“We found out that she lived in Tampa and thought, ‘How cool would it be if we could bring her to UT and share her story with the rest of the campus?,’” he said. “My initiatives and goals are set in us having a powerful Greek life here (at UT), somewhere we can all grow, where all fraternities and sororities can continue to grow. If that means that by using member education programs, not using hazing and making the right decisions, then that’s what we need to do.”

Kowiak recognized Hyssong following her speech.

“You approached me with your friends from your fraternity at that conference,” she said. “You and your friends are making a difference. I applaud you.”

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