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Proposed Florida Bill Would Protect Students From Hazing Deaths

FILE - This Nov. 7, 2017 file photo shows the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house near Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla. AP Photo/Joseph Reedy, file)

Andrew Coffey should have been graduating from Florida State University with his classmates this May. But his life was cut short when he was pressured into drinking an entire bottle of 101-proof Wild Turkey bourbon in a fraternity hazing ritual. Now his parents are pleading the Florida Legislature to pass a bill that expands the state’s anti-hazing laws.

The proposed legislation offers amnesty to the first person who makes a 911 call in a hazing emergency, meaning he or she can’t be prosecuted for hazing.

Sandra and Thomas Coffey said the proposed change could help prevent another tragic death like their son’s. They came to Tallahassee earlier this month to show support for the bill at a Senate Criminal Justice Committee meeting. Thomas Coffey fought back tears as he spoke.

Thomas Coffey fought back tears while addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 11, 2019. (Screenshot from The Florida Channel)

“We’re doing this for all the other kids,” he said. “We never, never, never want to see this repeated again.”

Sandra Coffey said she should have been traveling to Tallahassee to see her son graduate from FSU. Instead, tragedy brought her to the Capitol.

“If one of the kids from the party that night — there were 90 kids there — if just one of them would have picked up the phone when they saw that Andrew needed some help, he’d still be here,” she said.

Left for dead

On an early November night in 2017, 20-year-old Andrew Coffey, a Pi Kappa Phi pledge at FSU, was found dead at an off-campus apartment. He had been forced to drink an entire bottle of bourbon and it became clear to fraternity members that Coffey was unwell, according to a civil complaint filed by Coffey’s parents.

But he was left lying on a couch, alone and in the dark, surrounded only by empty bottles and cups.

It wasn’t until the next morning that another pledge called 911. But it was too late.

Andrew Coffey’s death prompted FSU to suspend Greek life and address binge drinking by students. The university has been supportive of the bills introduced this year, said Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, who represents Coffey’s district. The proposed changes to the law, he said, could save lives in the future.

Andrew Coffey’s fraternity brothers may have been too scared to call 911, said LaMarca, sponsor of HB 727. But with the proposed changes, students might feel more comfortable picking up the phone.

“Could this have saved (Andrew’s) life?” he asked. “We don’t know the answer to that question, but we certainly want to make sure that we create a situation where people are comfortable enough that in the future, if a life can be saved, this is something that can help do that.”

LaMarca said the immunity offered to 911 callers does not constitute a full pardon. A person could still be prosecuted for other serious crimes besides hazing.

“Law enforcement will still have the ability to look at the situation,” he said. “We’re not taking investigative ability away from them.”

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, sponsor of the Senate companion bill SB1080, is convinced Andrew Coffey would have survived had her bill been in place before.

“Absolutely it would have (saved his life),” she said. “When you look at the circumstances of that night, you had a bunch college kids who were too scared to do anything, but under the new rules of this bill, they wouldn’t have to be.”

Accountability

Another important component of this bill is holding those who organize hazing events just as accountable as those who participate, Book said.

“If you are directing people to do that, if you are putting the bottle in (their) hand and forcing (them) to drink, you should be held accountable,” she said. “That’s on you.”

This bill would change the language of Florida’s current hazing statute to hold responsible anyone who “solicits a person to commit, or is actively involved in the planning of” an act of hazing.

Long time coming

It has been more than 16 months since the Coffey’s lives were shattered. Their son’s death was hardly an anomaly — similar hazing deaths have been reported across the country.

Franklin College professor Hank Nuwer keeps a database of all hazing deaths. According to this database, the first college hazing death took place at Amherst College in 1847 after a freshman was drenched in ice water as part of an initiation ritual.

More recently, nine LSU fraternity members were arrested this year on hazing charges that included ordering pledges to lie in pools of broken glass, kicking pledges with steel-toed boots and urinating on them, according to the Associated Press.

The Coffeys joined Parents United to Stop Hazing (PUSH), a group of parents whose children died in hazing incidents. Sandra Coffey said her son’s story mirrors the deaths of almost all of the other children whose parents she has met through PUSH.

“We, and 15 other families in the country, belong to a club we don’t want any more members to,” Thomas Coffey said while addressing the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on March 11.

The Coffeys’ lawyer, David Bianchi, said Florida’s hazing statue hasn’t changed since it was enacted in 2002. In that context, the Coffeys feel the proposed legislative changes are a long time coming.

“It’s time to revisit this and see what else we can do to it. It’s important that it ends,” Sandra Coffey said. “I hope for Andrew’s sake that he didn’t die in vain. That something good can come out of it.”

The two bills have already passed unanimously through the Senate and House Criminal Justice committees. The House bill is on the Higher Education & Career Readiness Subcommittee agenda for Wednesday.

About Matthew Arrojas

Matthew is a reporter for WUFT News and Fresh Take Florida who can be reached by calling 786-332-8003 or emailing marrojas@ufl.edu.

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