A bill to criminalize hazing was signed by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear on Monday, culminating a call for action by the family of a university student who died.
The measure creates a felony crime for hazing that results in the death or serious injury of a student — punishable by up to five years in prison. Someone accused of recklessly engaging in hazing would face a misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to a year in jail.
Leading the push for the bill was the family of Thomas “Lofton” Hazelwood, a University of Kentucky student from Henderson who died in 2021 at age 18.
“It’s a phone call nobody ever wants to get,” Tracey Hazelwood, the student’s mother, said at the signing ceremony Monday at the state Capitol. “And we hope this never happens to anybody else again. This is not going to bring my baby back, but this is going to save other lives.”
Tracey Hazelwood had 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 well over the legal limit for adults to drive in Kentucky. A Kentucky coroner concluded that alcohol toxicity caused the death.
Republican Sen. Robby Mills, the bill’s lead sponsor, referred to the measure as a deterrent, saying young people should be able to enjoy their college years without “the fear of hazing.”
With lawmakers set to reconvene Wednesday for the final two days of this year’s session, Beshear has gone through stacks of bills to decide whether to sign or veto them. Other bills he signed Monday include a pair of juvenile justice measures and a proposal to toughen drunken-driving laws.
The DUI-related bill mandates that a person is guilty of vehicular homicide for causing another person’s death when operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, a controlled substance or other impairing substance. Under the bill, the offense is punishable by 10 to 20 years in prison.
Joining the governor for the bill-signing was the family of Lily Fairfield, a 16-year-old from Oldham County who died in 2021 after a driver under the influence crashed into the car her sister, Zoe Fairfield, was driving on their way to school. The driver had been arrested on a DUI charge and released just three days before the fatal crash, the governor’s office said in a news release. The bill also increases the amount of time that DUI suspects are detained.
“There is no bill that lawmakers could pass … that would bring Lily back into our lives, but today we will all take a big step forward, saving future Kentucky families from” the same heartbreaking tragedy, Zoe Fairfield said at the news conference.
Meanwhile, the governor signed two bills aimed at shoring up the state’s struggling juvenile justice system. The result will be an influx of state money for salary increases, to hire more youth workers and to make security upgrades at youth detention centers. Another objective is to reopen a youth detention center in Louisville, the state’s largest city.
Asked about the legislature’s work on juvenile justice, Beshear told reporters: “I’m grateful that the General Assembly put about 70% of what we asked for and some of the most critical components” in the legislation. “But we still need dollars for other important and significant changes. We hope those will be considered in the next session.”
Republican lawmakers have blamed the Democratic governor’s administration for the unrest in the juvenile justice system. The state Republican Party issued a statement Monday that said Beshear’s administration “ran it into the ground.” Beshear said that pay raises and other changes in the system were needed for years but weren’t made then by the GOP-led legislature.
The state-run juvenile justice system has struggled to house increasing numbers of young people accused of violent offenses, resulting in a string of assaults, riots and escapes. Beshear previously took a series of steps to try to quell the unrest, including providing “defensive equipment” — pepper spray and Tasers — so detention center workers can defend themselves and others if attacked.