Rae Ann and Stephen Gruver will never hear their son Max’s voice again. But if they did, the Gruvers hope he’d express pride in their advocacy against the hazing traditions that took Max’s life in September.

“If this is what we can do to make what happened to Max make something better, then we’ll do whatever we have to make him proud,” Rae Ann Gruver said at the State Capitol on Wednesday.

The Gruvers traveled nearly 500 miles from Roswell, Georgia to testify in support of House Bill 78, which seeks to strengthen the state's criminal penalties in hazing cases.

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Video by LSU Manship School News Service

The bill, sponsored by Lafayette Republican Rep. Nancy Landry, passed the House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee Wednesday following emotional testimony from the Gruvers and other friends and families affected by hazing.

Landry said the bill was inspired by Max, an LSU Phi Delta Theta pledge who died in September after a night of heavy drinking at the fraternity house.

[RELATEDLSU bans Phi Delta Theta chapter from campus until 2033 after Max Gruver hazing death]

Landry’s bill, which will be called the Max Gruver Act if it becomes law, would increase the penalty for hazing to five years behind bars and a $1,000 fine if a hazing victim dies or suffers serious bodily injury. Misdemeanor hazing charges currently only carry a 30-day jail sentence and a potential $100 fine.

Felony charges could also be brought if a hazing victim has a blood alcohol level of .25, which the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recognizes as in the range where loss of consciousness is possible. Landry said the bill’s penalties are some of the stiffest in the country, as state legislatures consider ways to curb hazing injuries and deaths after four hazing and drinking related fraternity deaths in 2017.

“Our house used to be filled with laughing friends and now it’s filled with sadness,” Rae Ann Gruver said, choking back tears, during Wednesday's hearing on the bill. “This will save lives, it would’ve saved Max’s, and it definitely could save someone else’s life in the future.”

Rae Ann Gruver recounted how her 18-year-old son was forced to drink 190-proof liquor during a “Bible Study” at the fraternity house, a ritual in which pledges had to answer questions about the fraternity’s history. Gruver choked on his vomit during that night while sleeping on a sofa in the fraternity house. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital with a blood alcohol level of .495 — more than six times the legal limit to drive.

Four men were indicted this month on charges tied to Gruver’s death. Matthew Alexander Naquin, 20, has been charged with negligent homicide, while Sean-Paul Gott, 21, Ryan Matthew Isto, 19, and Patrick Andrew Forde, 21, were each charged with misdemeanor hazing counts.

LSU student Brooke McCulley said Max Gruver was a sweet, goofy boy who didn’t deserve to die. McCulley, who had been Gruver’s freshman orientation leader, said hazing and dangerous drinking have been normalized on campuses and require a cultural change, but legal action is a strong first step toward reform.

“His death should be a catalyst for change. It’s not just the alcohol and it’s not just the hazing. It’s a mindset,” McCulley said. “Max’s death wasn’t an accident because hazing isn’t an accident. I believe until the law reflects the gravity of the crime this will continue to happen.”

A second bill that advanced out of the same committee would set criminal penalties for those who do not alert authorities to medical emergencies. Four more grieving mothers testified about their sons' deaths during the hearing on House Bill 446, and how they believed they, as well as Gruver, might have been saved if someone had called 911.

Mary Ellen Jordan, whose son Graham died of a drug overdose last year when he was a student and fraternity member at LSU, said she worries that friends too often put the fear of getting in trouble over saving someone's life.

"Oftentimes, young people are engaging in reckless behavior with friends," she said. "It's as simple as calling 911 but it's not being done and not done in a timely manner."

Under HB446, sponsored by Mandeville Republican Rep. Reid Falconer, those who fail to seek help when someone is injured by reckless behavior would face a $500 fine, six months in jail or both. It specifically would apply to acts of hazing, binge drinking, drag racing and drug consumption. The bill likely will be amended to address concerns raised by district attorneys and others seeking clarity.

Landry, a former sorority member herself, said fraternities, sororities and other student organizations can build strong relationships without putting members at risk.

“You can still make lifelong friendships with people without having your life threatened,” Landry said. “You don’t have to go through a war with somebody and be subjected to sadistic rituals to bond with somebody.”

HB78 would also increase penalties for representatives and advisers who knew about hazing and failed to report to up to $10,000, which the committee lowered from the $100,000 Landry initially proposed. It could apply to a fraternity or sorority’s national organization, in addition to individual chapters, as well as other social groups and fraternal organizations for students.

The fine maximum was decreased after a 9-6 vote after Rep. Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge, voiced her concern that smaller fraternities and sororities could be bankrupted by the heftier fine. Carpenter is a former international president for Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said $10,000 doesn’t put adequate pressure on large fraternity and sorority organizations.

“A $10,000 fine for a large corporate entity is zero, its nothing. A slap on the wrist, it’s a joke," Moore said during a press conference after HB78 passed. “Show me a jail cell that a corporation is sitting in for any wrongdoing. There is no jail cell. How do you impact corporations then? It’s in their pocket book, and a $10,000 fine for a large corporation is nothing."

Moore said the original $100,000 fine would be the maximum financial penalty possible, and discretion would still be left to the judge to set an appropriate fine. Moore said a smaller Greek chapter with only $5,000 in the bank likely wouldn’t be fined $100,000, and would instead be penalized an amount appropriate to their financial holdings.

The Gruvers said they also were disappointed in the decreased amount.

Currently, universities on their own can punish student groups that engage in hazing. Shortly after HB78 passed the criminal justice committee Wednesday, LSU announced Phi Delta Theta fraternity is banned from campus until at least 2033, following an investigation into the events that led to Gruver's death.

Any underground activity by former members of Phi Delta Theta could extend the ban, the LSU Office of Student Advocacy and Accountability said in its announcement.

An amendment to Landry's proposed bill would also make university leaders legally liable if they had knowledge of hazing and failed to report it to law enforcement, though Moore said proving universities liable could be difficult because often little evidence of prior knowledge exists.

Landry’s bill is one of several addressing hazing this legislative session. Gov. John Bel Edwards administration deputy executive counsel Tina Vanichchagorn said the governor supports a bill that would outline hazing education requirements for universities. Vanichchagorn said the bill would require schools to incorporate Landry’s hazing definition in their rules, offer hazing education at university orientations and necessitate student organizations offer hazing prevention training to their members.

On Tuesday, a Senate committee advanced a separate bill that would increase civil penalties in hazing deaths.

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Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.