FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill aimed at criminalizing hazing on Thursday, the final day before lawmakers began an extended break to give the governor time to consider signing or vetoing the bills sent to him.
After making a few changes, the state House passed Senate Bill 9 on a 96-3 vote to make hazing a crime, responding to calls for action following a university student’s death. The measure is now on its way to Gov. Andy Beshear for his signature.
“For far too long, hazing has been this awkward right of passage in Kentucky that many still refuse to acknowledge was wrong,” said Republican Sen. Robby Mills, the bill’s lead sponsor.
The anti-hazing bill would create a felony crime for hazing that results in the death or serious injury of a student. The offense would be punishable by up to five years in prison. Also under the bill, someone accused of recklessly engaging in hazing would face a misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to a year in jail.
“Our intent is to save lives,” Republican Rep. Jonathan Dixon said as the House debated the bill Wednesday.
Supporters of the bill include the family of Thomas “Lofton” Hazelwood, a University of Kentucky student who died in 2021 at age 18.
Tracey Hazelwood, the student’s mother, told lawmakers that after her son pledged to a fraternity, he had to participate in illegal acts that “could have got him kicked out of school” in order to belong to the fraternity, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. On the night he died of alcohol toxicity, his blood alcohol concentration was 0.354, well over 0.08, the legal limit for adults to drive in Kentucky.
Elevating hazing to a crime deals shows “the seriousness of these actions,” Mills said while presenting the bill to a House committee Wednesday.
“It lets students know that Kentucky values student safety and violations of their safety will be addressed,” he said.
The bill’s passage came Thursday at the start of a full day of votes on stacks of legislation. Lawmakers will not meet again until the end of March for the final two days of the session.
The debate revolved around thousands of cash payout games set up in convenience stores, gas stations and bars across Kentucky, often known as “skill games,” or sometimes “gray machines” based on their murky legal status. Proponents of the ban focused on the proliferation of the machines. They said a failure to banish the devices would lead to the largest expansion of gambling in Kentucky history. Opponents of the ban said the bill would hurt the many small businesses that offer the games.
Beshear’s signature capped one of the most bitter policy fights of the legislative session.
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