The parents of a late LSU fraternity pledge told Louisiana legislators Wednesday that if hazing were subject to stiffer penalties, their 18-year-old son may still be alive today.
Rae Ann and Stephen Gruver traveled from Roswell, Georgia to the State Capitol, to endorse legislation that now bears the young man’s name. Under the “Max Gruver Act,” sponsored by Rep. Nancy Landry (R-Lafayette), hazing that causes death or serious injury would be a felony subject to five years in prison. It is currently a misdemeanor charge, carrying a 30-day jail sentence.
“This bill is the deterrent that will make young adults and kids think twice before they participate in an event like hazing,” Gruver’s father said. “It’s exactly what we need.”
The House criminal justice committee passed the bill without objection. It now goes to the full lower chamber for consideration. Lawmakers stand confident it will become state law.
“We hope to be a model for other states in working to change the culture of hazing,” Landry said. “We can’t bring Max back, but we are hoping in the future we don’t have to bury any more people who want to join an organization.”
Gruver died last September, after LSU’s Phi Delta Theta chapter held what members dubbed a “Bible Study.” Fraternity brothers quizzed pledges about the fraternity and ordered they drink from 190-proof hard liquor. Members demanded Gruver drink more than the other pledges, as a penalty for being late. After becoming unresponsive, members placed him on a downstairs couch until the morning.
“Even with obvious signs of distress, no one called 911 to render Max help during the night,” said Rae Ann Gruver.
Gruver was taken to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where he was pronounced dead from acute alcohol intoxication. East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark concluded that he choked on vomit as it entered his lungs. His blood-alcohol level was .495, more than six times the legal limit for driving.
“What do you think his blood-alcohol level was when this happened 24 to 36 hours earlier?” Gruver’s mother asked legislators Wednesday. “We used to have a House full of laughing friends. Now our house is full of sadness.”
“Max’s death wasn’t an accident, because hazing isn’t an accident,” said LSU senior Brooke McCulley, who recalled Gruver as a funny and bright student. “It’s a dangerous crime, and it should be treated as such.”
Four Phi Delta Theta members were indicted last week for their alleged role in the pledge’s death. Authorities charged Matthew Naquin, 20, with felony negligent homicide and could face five years in prison, if convicted. The remaining three — Sean-Paul Gott, 21; Matthew Isto, 19; and Patrick Andrew Forde, 21 — face misdemeanor hazing charges and could spend 30 days in jail.
The students would not be subject to the felony hazing charge, if the bill passes.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore believes the proposed charge could be more appropriate in prosecuting future incidents.
“With this legislation, it’s going to properly address the behavior that will result in serious bodily harm, or death, in [Gruver’s] case,” he said.
The bill considered Wednesday originally recommended a fine of up to $100,000 for any group that is aware of hazing but does not report it. Committee members amended the measure and lowered that penalty to $10,000, claiming a higher fine could bankrupt Greek organizations, sports teams and other organizations.
Moore initially questioned whether the reduced fine would be enough to discourage groups from engaging in drug- and alcohol-related hazing, but he praised the bill’s advancement.
“The idea is for Max Gruver to be the last death by hazing in the country,” he said.
Under another amendment passed, a court could also hold educational institutions liable for hazing.
The bill hearing came the same day that LSU announced it would ban Phi Delta Theta from the school until 2033.
Gruver’s parents said no passage of time could shed their loss. “We have to figure out everyday how to face the day knowing our son was killed so senselessly,” his mother said. “How do we deal with this everyday for the rest of our lives?”
The 18-year-old’s father said he often thinks of what he would tell his son, were he to see him one more time.
“I would tell Max, ‘We love you, we miss you,” he said. “He’s with us.