Their Son Died in a Hazing Incident at WSU. Now They’re Pushing for a New State Law

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Washington state lawmakers are working on a hazing-prevention bill that would put new restrictions on colleges, universities, and fraternities. “Sam’s Law Act” cleared a final hurdle in the State Senate today, and is likely to be voted on tomorrow.

The law’s name refers to Sam Martinez, who was 19-years-old when he died of alcohol poisoning in a hazing incident at Washington State University in 2019. Jolayne Houtz is Sam’s mother. She and her husband Hector have been pushing for this new law. KUOW’s Kim Malcolm spoke with Jolayne about her fight to end hazing.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Jolayne Houtz: He was such a wonderful young man. He had this wide circle of friends and family who he loved and who loved him. He decided to go to Washington State University to study business entrepreneurship. His idea was to follow in his dad’s footsteps and open his own business at some point. He was only a few weeks into his college life when he was hazed to death.

What happened to Sam?

On November 11, 2019, Sam was studying in the library at WSU when he got a message to report to the fraternity where he was pledging. Sam and all of his fellow pledges were taken to the basement of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity that night. They were supposed to learn who their “big brother” in the fraternity would be. Sam was handed a half-gallon bottle of rum by his so-called big brother and told to drink the family drink.

Dozens of fraternity members saw Sam clearly incapacitated and ultimately losing consciousness over the next few hours, but not one of them called for help. They laid him down on a couch and they left him to die alone of alcohol poisoning. He had just turned 19 years old, and he had his whole bright future ahead of him. My heart aches when I think about my son going through that, or anyone’s son going through that.

One question that I ask myself over and over again since that night is what if just one of those young men had been trained to recognize hazing and had said no, had intervened or called for help? I think Sammy, I know, I know in my heart, Sammy would still be alive today if there had been proper training, and if our family had had a chance to learn about this particular fraternity’s history of hazing, and drug and alcohol violations.

We later learned that the National ATO fraternity was so concerned about this chapter that they came in and kicked out nearly half of its members the year before Sam was recruited, but that history was hidden from the public, even though it was well known by Washington State University and by the National Alpha Tau Omega fraternity organization.

How did you and your husband come to the decision that legislation was needed around this issue?

Our family’s goal is really quite simple, but yet also very urgent, which is to save a life for the one taken from us. It’s too late for us, right? We will never get Sammy back, but I can’t bear to think about what has happened to us happening to any other family. It’s been a terrible two years. We continue to grapple every day with his loss and all the what ifs that follow.

What would your bill do?

It’s about transparency and education. It updates the definition of hazing, and it requires education about hazing for new students. Then it makes that training available to families and volunteers and requires training for university employees who work with students. Thirdly, it requires colleges and universities to publicly report details about hazing violations and other offenses including drug and alcohol violations, sexual assault and physical assault. We’re trying to be very broad in our efforts at improving health and safety and protecting young adults who are vulnerable living away from home for the first time.

How is this advocacy work impacting you and your husband and your lives?

It’s hard to tell our story over and over again. We’re still coming to grips with the reality of it. But I feel like Sam would be very proud, not only of us, but so many others in our wider group of family and friends who have stepped up to this cause. So, it’s bittersweet, right? I feel great about the support from the community, about the momentum that we have built in the legislature, and it makes me miss my son even more.

Listen to the interview here.

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