Hector Martinez and Jolayne Houtz still grieve for their son.

Sam Martinez died in November 2019 of acute alcohol poisoning while pledging a fraternity at Washington State University, where he was a freshman. He was 19.

Now, three years later, Sam’s parents are supporting two bills in the state Legislature that would toughen the penalties for hazing and educate campus groups about the dangerous practice.

Martinez and Houtz testified recently before the House College & Workforce Development Committee, which was discussing one of the two bills.

“I’m here today as a father who still grieves over his lost son,” said Hector Martinez via Zoom. He described his son as a loyal, athletic and kind person who stood up to bullies on the school bus and loved volunteering in his community. A graduate of Newport High School, Sam Martinez hoped to study business and entrepreneurship at WSU.

One bill, HB 1751, would make updates and clarifications to the state’s 30-year-old hazing laws by redefining the term itself. The new bill would forbid any act “forcing a person to consume any food, liquid, alcohol, drug, or other substance which subjects the person to risk of such harm as part of an initiation or recruitment process.” It would also now include athletic teams, along with sororities and fraternities, as a type of student organization forbidden from hazing.

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The measure, modeled after an Ohio anti-hazing law passed last July, emphasizes education and transparency. It would require all institutions of higher learning in Washington state to hold anti-hazing trainings during new student orientations as well as maintain a prominent website detailing all past hazing investigations. It would mandate that any Greek organization seeking to open or renew a chapter must notify the university of their plans as well as maintain a prominent website of their own with their organization’s antihazing policies. The bill also requires fraternities and sororities to notify the university when they open a hazing investigation.

The committee voted on the bill Thursday, where it passed with the removal of several provisions from the original version. The passed edition of the bill does not require universities to verify student’s attendance at the antihazing trainings and no longer requires universities to maintain a digitized list of current investigations. “Confidential employees” such as counselors are also no longer mandated to report incidences of hazing or sexual assault. The bill now is expected to head to the House Appropriations Committee.

“Fraternities have proven again and again and again that they are not up to the task of putting an end to hazing by themselves,” testified Houtz, a former Seattle Times reporter. “I can’t rest until we put in place safeguards to ensure no other family goes through the hell of losing their child to hazing.”

Sam Martinez was found dead Nov. 12, 2019, the morning after Alpha Tau Omega’s “big/little” night. Pullman police originally recommended hazing charges for two former fraternity members, one of whom was Martinez’s “big,” a Greek life tradition in which older members act as big brothers to younger pledges.

Martinez’s death was classified as an accident by the Whitman County coroner.  His family filed a wrong death lawsuit in 2020 against the university, the fraternity, and its WSU chapter. As a result of the tragedy, ATO lost its WSU recognition for six years and admitted to violating the university’s standards of conduct.

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More on the lawsuit against WSU

Martinez’s parents sued the university, the fraternity, its local chapter and several fraternity members, saying that Martinez, a graduate of Newport High School who loved to play sports and hoped to study business and entrepreneurship at WSU, died as part of a pattern of hazing at the fraternity.

Settlements have since been reached with all the named defendants, except WSU. WSU has asked for the case to be dismissed. A hearing in the case is scheduled for early March and it could go to trial as soon as March 21.

Separately, Whitman County prosecutors charged 15 fraternity members with supplying alcohol to a minor, in connection with the initiation event. Eight pleaded guilty, while the other seven will have the charges dismissed if they complete certain court-mandated requirements.

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Houtz and Hector Martinez’s testimony last week was joined by that of their son’s childhood best friend, Will Carlson.

“Even if this bill has the opportunity to prevent maybe just one person from having to go through what Sam did, I think it’ll be worth it,” said Carlson. “If this bill is passed into law, I will be able to remember that the last thing my friends and I were able to do for Sam was help make the world at least a little bit better.”

HB 1751 is accompanied by another proposed piece of legislation, HB 1758, which would reclassify hazing to a gross misdemeanor, or, in the case of significant bodily harm, a felony.

Paytan Murray, the president of the University of Washington Panhellenic Association, spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the UW’s 18 sororities.

“I am in complete support of more explicitly outlining and updating the hazing policy for all living community groups across the state,” Murray said in an email. “My highest priority is the safety of members in this community and any legislation which further works to increase transparency for the greater Seattle area, with our goal being to completely eradicate hazing, has my full support and the subsequent support of my executive board.”

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Phil Weiler, Vice President for Marketing and Communications at WSU, said the university has been in discussion with Rep. Mari Leavitt, (D-Tacoma), “in hopes of fine tuning the bill so it can be sent to the governor’s desk ready for practical implementation.”

The University of Washington, represented by Associate Director of State Relations Morgan Hickel, voiced its support for the measure’s aims, but expressed concerns with some of the new requirements, citing the UW’s large student body as a barrier to the anti-hazing education programs the university would be required to run. Hickel also mentioned the UW’s Confidential Advocates program, which provides resources and advice to students who have been impacted by sexual harassment or assault.

“A student may not feel safe or comfortable seeking help or guidance from a University employee if they know it will automatically trigger a report and subsequent investigation,” said Hickel in an email. “We must ensure that any measure that could further hinder reporting on hazing or other crimes be stringently considered with the victim’s safety and wellbeing as the top priority.”

The university is also concerned that the bill would alienate the UW’s Greek organizations, discouraging them from registering with the school’s Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life. According to Hickel, Greek organizations are private entities and the university thoroughly reviews regulations that may unintentionally discourage them from registering at the UW.

Representatives from WSU’s Center for Fraternity & Sorority Life or the UW’s Interfraternity Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Gary Jenkins, an officer representing the Pullman Police Department, also testified before the committee, describing the Greek scene at WSU and the school’s lack of transparency.

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“There’s no requirement for colleges or fraternities and sororities to publicly report sanctions,” Jenkins said. “How do students and parents know which fraternity or sorority is safe? They don’t.”

Jenkins’ comments echo the sentiments of Houtz and Martinez, as well as testimony from Kathleen Wiant, a mother from Columbus, Ohio, whose son Collin died from hazing three years ago. After Collin announced he was pledging a fraternity, Wiant described her cursory search of the organization that didn’t reveal concerning information. The family didn’t know that just months prior, another pledge at Ohio University had been sent to the hospital, requiring eight stitches as a result of hazing.

“Armed with this information, Collin would not have pledged that fraternity and Collin would be alive today,” Wiant said during her testimony.

Even parents who have knowledge of or previous experience in Greek life, as Wiant did, can find the system confusing and opaque. First-generation parents find themselves even more in the dark.

“I think about all the parents like me, first-generation immigrants to this country. We don’t have any experience with fraternities or the Greek system,” said Martinez. He cited language and cultural differences as barriers to clear communication and described the importance of parents having access to information that will help them and their children make informed decisions.

For the Martinez family, advocating for these bills and raising awareness of hazing-related violence is part of the healing process, and it is in Sam’s memory that they work to make sure no other family in the state of Washington loses a child to hazing.

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“It’s about making a difference in somebody else’s life because of what we had to go through, and trying to prevent that,” said Houtz. “It’s hard to make something good come out of something so awful. But if we can do that, I don’t know. Maybe we will hurt just a little bit less.”