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A Community Reacts as Greek Life Changes

by on January 13, 2020 5:00 AM

This is the first in a series of stories to be published by the Centre County Gazette exploring the aftermath of the Timothy Piazza hazing death in 2017. Learn more about the series here.

By Shane Connelly, Lilly Forsyth and Nicolas Roselli

It’s been almost three years since Timothy Piazza sustained fatal injuries in the now-banned Penn State fraternity Beta Theta Pi.

On Feb. 4, 2017, 19-year-old Piazza died following hazing-related alcohol consumption as a part of Beta Theta Pi’s pledging process two nights earlier. In the fallout, the university imposed new restrictions on fraternities, setting precedent for a new chapter of Greek life here.

Students and residents acknowledge the long-standing issues that Piazza’s death exposed, and they have mixed feelings of how the ensuing punishments were dealt out. However, the state’s anti-hazing law was strengthened as a result of Piazza’s death, thanks to the work of his parents and a state lawmaker who did not want the community to have to go through this again.

Resident Clem Pantalone, owner of Clem’s BBQ in downtown State College, believes that there should’ve been harsher consequences for the Beta Theta Pi brothers. Of the 28 who were charged, three were sentenced to spend several months behind bars, though a judge later reduced the penalty to house arrest.

“I’ve seen a lot of students partake in heavy drinking, but the whole Piazza case, yeah, that was pretty bad,” Pantalone said. “I think that there should’ve been stiffer punishment on those guys. It was pretty egregious. I hadn’t seen the community that heartbroken since the (Jerry) Sandusky case.”

Eric Cignarella, a senior information science and technology major, talked about his initial shock after the incident.

“When I first heard about Piazza’s death, I was speechless. After reading the details of the case, I truly believed that fraternities and sororities were a waste of everyone’s time,” Cignarella said, adding that his opinion has evolved since because of the philanthropic efforts of fraternities and sororities for the annual Dance Marathon.

As a young adult who recently became a resident of State College, Sam Gburek, 19, said she does attend parties where alcohol is served. The locations, however, do not include fraternities and sororities.

“I just don’t think I’d feel comfortable in those places,” Gburek said.

Gburek works several part-time jobs. In her time working in State College, she said she is sometimes surprised at how casually people get intoxicated.

For instance, she recalled interacting with a visibly intoxicated customer around midday who flirted with her during a football weekend.

Though she is a new resident, Gburek spent many days in the area as a child when her grandparents lived here. When Piazza died, Gburek’s family was wary of the environment Gburek and her older brother, Alex, were spending part of their lives growing up in.

More specifically, Gburek said her parents warned Alex, who attends Penn State and was a freshman when Piazza died, to “not get too caught up” in the aftermath of the death and how it would impact the university and community.

“Death brings harsh perspective,” said Alex Gburek, a junior majoring in architectural engineering. “I hadn’t thought of these substances or independence resulting in death, however, it certainly cautioned me to have fun, but do it with trustworthy people at trustworthy locations.”

GREEK LIFE RESTRICTIONS

After Piazza’s death, the university introduced restrictions for Greek life including prohibiting freshmen from rushing during their first semester, no daylong parties and only 10 socials per semester.

Former Pi Kappa Alpha President Nicholas Saris feels as though the Greek reputation in the community is permanently tainted.

“After the passing of Tim Piazza, the Greek community at Penn State changed forever,” Saris said. “It’s no longer just as simple as being in a fraternity or sorority anymore. Instead, the title of ‘Penn State Greek life’ comes with an asterisk next to it.”

Alex Pressman, senior and Sigma Alpha Mu member, feels that the community now looks down upon Greek life as a result of Piazza’s death and uses a “one size fits all” mentality to describe Greek life as a whole.

“Because of the actions of those Beta Theta Pi brothers, the ‘frat’ stereotype is now more real than ever,” said Pressman. “This upset me because the actions of one fraternity automatically destroys the reputation of all of us.”

Campus pastor Ben Wideman of 3rd Way Collective noted that after the university created restrictions for Greek life, visiting alumni looking to have a good time would often disregard the prohibitions and encourage students to drink, making Wideman question where the power of change stems from.

“We are technically a dry campus,” Wideman, 37, said, “but we sort of look the other way on football weekends where we have just a massive alcohol-fueled tailgating party.”

‘MODEL’ LEGISLATION

The death of Piazza forced state lawmakers into action.

Piazza’s death catalyzed change in the way hazing-related deaths are handled by the legal system.

Following the death of their son, Jim and Evelyn Piazza worked with state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican from Benner Township, to strengthen the laws the state already had in place.

Together, the Piazzas, their lawyers at Kline & Specter and Corman worked to create the Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law.

The law restructured hazing into tiers, meaning that stricter punishments will be given in cases of hazing violations that are deemed more serious.

It also holds involved parties, such as student organizations or individual organizers, accountable for hazing, and it requires universities to publicize anti-hazing policies and violations to show precisely what can occur when organizations are found guilty of hazing.

Additionally, the law grants immunity from legal repercussions for victims of hazing and others who intervene.

“They swung for the fences and they pretty much got it,” Jim Piazza said about the revamped policies.

Penn State President Eric Barron, among other university presidents, showed support for the bill in letters sent to the Piazzas. It was then officially signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf on Oct. 19, 2018.

For the Piazzas, seeing Wolf sign the law brought on a sense of accomplishment.

“The lawmakers saw an issue — unfortunately, it was reactionary to what happened to my son — but I think they did the right thing,” Jim Piazza said. “They put probably the toughest law in the country in place.”

When the Piazzas originally reached out to Corman’s office, he knew that this law would have the chance to set a standard for other states.

“The biggest influence on me and wanting to move this legislation forward was that I am a father,” Corman said. “I cannot imagine the pain and anguish that Jim and Evelyn Piazza are experiencing in losing a child, and at the same time, I know that without changes, that could happen to another family.”

Corman, a Penn State alumnus, also couldn’t help but feel a sense of responsibility to help inspire change to prevent future deaths at the school he once attended.

Since being put into place, the law has received a strong response from numerous parties.

“We have received very positive feedback from not only law enforcement, but from the university and the fraternities and sororities,” Corman said. “Nationally, this legislation has become a model for other states to strengthen their laws.”

NOT THE END

Though the law has been in place for more than one year, Corman and the Piazzas agree that this will not be the end of the process of eliminating hazing.

“I think there is always more that can be done,” Corman said. “The hope is that this law provides students, families and faculty with the tools that they need to make informed decisions about the organizations that they are trying to join and about how hazing is viewed. As with many of these things, changing the law can only do so much; rather, education about the issue is key.”

Gaining national traction is what the Piazzas have identified as the next step in their fight to prevent hazing-related deaths.

Evelyn Piazza has taken on a role as an advocate against hazing, traveling to schools across the country to share her son’s story. She and her husband have also continued to push for changes to hazing laws by the federal government.

“If you looked at the Pennsylvania legislation, it has that transparency aspect in it,” Jim Piazza said. “But for us to go to 50 states and try to get that passed, it’s crazy when they could just do it at the federal level.”

U.S. Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, and Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, formally introduced the “End All Hazing Act” on Oct. 25 following the deaths of Piazza and Max Gruver, a Louisiana State University student who died in a hazing-related incident at Phi Delta Theta on Sept. 13, 2017.

Until Congress approves that act, the Piazzas have no plans to slow down on their campaign to continue raising awareness and create nationwide changes.

“It is our responsibility,” Evelyn Piazza said. “If we don’t do it, who else will? We’d have to leave that for the next family to lose a child, and that’s just not fair.”

Shane Connelly, Lilly Forsyth and Nicolas Roselli are Comm460 journalism students at Penn State.

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