LSU just celebrated 1,591 graduates during its fall 2017 commencement, but one student who barely settled into his dorm for his first semester away from home will never walk across that stage. He will also never celebrate the much sought after right of passage of earning a college degree. Maxwell Gruver, 18, should still be alive, but whatever happened on the night of September 13, 2017 has forever robbed him of that chance.
“We in the LSU community are grieving today,” said president F. King Alexander at a news conference announcing Gruver’s death.
Gruver died after what police believe was an intense night of hazing while trying to become a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity at LSU.
“It certainly can remind people of the dangers of alcohol,” said East Baton Rouge Coroner Dr. Beau Clark.
An autopsy would later reveal Gruver had swelling in his lungs and brain after it’s believed he and other pledges were forced to drink in excess while being questioned during a game called "Bible Study." According to police, Gruver was especially singled out. His blood alcohol content was a startling .495 percent at the time of his death, which is considered more than six times the legal limit.
“Alcohol is a depressant,” said Clark. “It slows the system down sometimes to the point to where the body stops working and that’s when you get into danger.”
The period of time where Gruver was in danger was grossly overlooked, according to a police report. Gruver was reportedly left on a couch in the frat house after passing out that night, with the report suggesting there may have been as much as a two-hour delay before he was taken to the hospital the next morning. The university was not notified until hours after the teen was pronounced dead.
“We mourn the loss and the impossible impact he may have had on our region and the world,” said Alexander.
Ten men were arrested after turning themselves in to LSU Police. Nine of them were charged with hazing one with negligent homicide.
Initial shock at the death gave way to a call for change at the school and now a task force on Greek Life, set up by Alexander, is nearly ready to present a list of recommendations they hope will put an end to hazing. “It’s to make sure we never have another tragedy again and it was a just a terrible situation,” said Rob Stuart, chairman of the task force.
Stuart says they have been meeting for months, but he believes in order to be a success, the plan has to not only change behaviors, but the entire culture on campus. “I think we really need people to really pull together and really focus on holding their members and themselves accountable,” said Stuart. “The system has to change because it can’t go on like this.”
Gruver was just one of several suspected hazing-related deaths in 2017, making the year one of the deadliest in modern history. At least three other high-profile deaths, including at Penn State, Florida State, and Texas State have sparked a national conversation about the dangerous practice that Dillard University President Dr. Walter Kimbrough says is long overdue.
“It’s just crazy,” said Kimbrough. “I’ve never seen that many deaths.”
Kimbrough says what's even worse than the number of lives hazing has claimed is the many cases he has seen where everyone involved, including those being hazed, actually welcome the mental, psychological, and physical abuse.
“It’s both sides,” said Kimbrough, “You have the members of the group that want to continue the traditions and you have those coming in that say, ‘I want to earn my way in like everybody else,’ and that fuels it.”
WAFB’s Scottie Hunter asked Kimbrough what it is about the draw of the groups that makes people so willing to die to belong.
“I think the average person who goes into it, they honestly don’t think that they are going to die,” he responded. “They don’t even think it’s a possibility and on the surface, if you read any of these creeds and mottos of these groups, you’ll say this is something that you want to be a part of and this is good stuff.”
Kimbrough, who is also in a fraternity, believes the organizations are not necessarily bad. Many of them provide a brotherhood or sisterhood, improved leadership skills, and a sense of purpose for members, but Kimbrough admits when it comes to how to prevent hazing, many universities and the groups themselves are still scrambling for answers.
“We don’t know and I think sometimes it’s okay to say we don’t know or we don’t have the answers and we’re still trying to figure this out,” said Kimbrough. “We don’t have a clue.”
While he says there's no magic solution to end the problem, Kimbrough is encouraged to see more education about it at the middle and high school level and stricter punishments for those who still choose to haze. “There are parents who are burying their children because of hazing,” he added. “I think more people need to go to jail because of this.”
Kimbrough also believes those who haze need to face tougher charges when arrested instead of just a hazing charge.
“I do. Let’s not provide that protection,” he said. “If the message was that people would be charged like someone on the street, I think that would lead to better outcomes and it has to be the message that’s communicated.”
EBR District Attorney Hillar Moore has already been working to bring this case to a grand jury. The group has met at least once and Moore expects the process to continue for at least another month before they are ready to move forward.
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