Reeling from two deaths and criminal charges against students, Virginia State University on Tuesday reiterated its zero-tolerance policy toward hazing and announced an initiative to help students make better decisions about which groups they join.
But the university declined to detail how it has handled recent disciplinary proceedings related to hazing, and Petersburg’s commonwealth’s attorney last week said she had worked with VSU to try to resolve the charges in one case.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Cassandra Conover said her prosecution last month of three students, including the president of the student government association, was based at least in part on what VSU “told me that I could offer to them.”
The anti-hazing strategies outlined by VSU President Keith T. Miller followed a closed meeting Monday of the executive committee of the board of visitors that lasted about four hours.
In a statement, Miller said VSU’s efforts will work to change society’s attitudes and actions toward hazing. He said the university will host “a major, anti-hazing conference, where issues and best practices will be discussed and shared.”
His initiatives include a task force to counsel students about the danger and the illegality of hazing and a new Online Student Organization Guide to inform them about university-sanctioned organizations.
VSU’s statement said the university “currently operates with a zero-tolerance policy toward hazing. Students and organizations guilty of hazing are quickly sanctioned, to include probation, suspension or expulsion.”
The statement also said VSU “provides complete cooperation with outside agencies investigating criminal allegations of hazing against VSU students or organizations.”
In closing Monday’s meeting to the public, the board executive committee cited personnel and legal matters, as well as “disciplinary matters involving students at VSU.”
VSU spokesman Tom Reed declined to say whether any students have been disciplined as the result of two separate cases this academic year.
Two students are among four men charged with hazing in connection with the deaths last month of VSU freshmen Marvell Edmondson and Jauwan Holmes, who drowned trying to cross the Appomattox River in an initiation for an unsanctioned group known as Men of Honor.
Also last month, three students, including the SGA president, and another man were charged with hazing in an incident in August involving the fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha.
Reed declined to clarify the status of Brandon Randleman, the SGA president, who also serves as the student representative on the board of visitors.
Citing a federal privacy law known as FERPA, Reed would not say whether Randleman has been removed as a student member of the board of visitors or whether he will graduate on schedule Sunday.
During a pretrial meeting with the defendants and their parents on April 8, Conover said “there was a mention to them what the school had offered” to have their cases resolved.
“The offer from the school — what the school told me that they would agree (to) — was that if the guys wanted to do an apology and (spend) a few days in the holding cell, they would allow them to graduate and I would have the matter dismissed.”
Conover said she told the defendants “what the school had authorized me to put before them, because the school can do whatever they want to do under the hazing statute.”
“All I did was offer to (them) what the school offered,” Conover said last week. “The school was willing to have the matter taken under advisement (by the judge) and (eventually) dismissed — and not have it go any further.”
In a court motion to vacate his guilty plea, Randleman said that Conover pressured him to accept the deal — which included pleading guilty to the misdemeanor hazing offense — or he wouldn’t graduate.
Randleman said he reluctantly did so without having the opportunity to first consult with an attorney; Conover denied bringing any pressure and said Randleman waived his right to an attorney when he appeared before the judge.
In court papers filed by the attorney representing him now, Del. Joseph D. Morrissey, D-Henrico, Randleman said he repeatedly told Conover in the pretrial meeting that he had done nothing wrong and was not guilty of hazing.
Morrissey said Randleman is “distraught” by the uncertainty surrounding his graduation.
“He’s got family members coming in from different parts of the country, and they obviously are very proud of his accomplishments,” Morrissey said, adding that he should be presumed innocent because he plans to withdraw his guilty plea.
“He has done nothing wrong, everybody knows it, and he’s caught in a vise grip between the commonwealth’s attorney’s office and the university. It’s patently unfair,” Morrissey said.
A special prosecutor has been appointed to handle Randleman’s case, set for May 23., after Conover and the judge who accepted Randleman’s plea recused themselves at Morrissey’s request.
The other three defendants in the August incident are set to appear Friday in Petersburg General District Court, where their cases will likely be dismissed if the court finds they abided by the conditions set forth by Conover and VSU.
A similar agreement was worked out by the Petersburg prosecutor in a hazing case involving another fraternity.
A former VSU student last fall sued Phi Beta Sigma and several fraternity members alleging he was hospitalized and had to undergo surgery after he endured numerous acts of hazing in 2008 and 2009.
Among those acts, Christopher Rudder alleges he was beaten, forced to eat “unknown materials” that made him vomit and had hot sauce poured on his genitals.
Criminal charges related to the case were dismissed after the defendants helped prepare and attend on-campus educational programs on hazing and fraternity pledging. The students also helped with the university’s anti-hazing training.