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Fraternity Fallout: A University Forever Changed

by on February 07, 2020 4:00 AM

Editor’s note: This is the fifth part of a Penn State student-written, six-part series that explores the fallout of the Timothy Piazza hazing death in 2017. This week, the series’ focus is on the future of Penn State University as it relates to the ups and downs of campus life following tragedy and what lies ahead.

By Matt Brownlow, David Pollack and Sean Hannegan

Timothy Piazza’s death from alcohol-fueled hazing in 2017 seemingly changed Penn State overnight, and it has shaped the future for Greek life and the university as a whole.

Students are questioning the future of the university’ commitment to a relationship with Greek life and the fate of fraternity houses, and incoming freshmen students’ experiences will be shaped by his death and the subsequent changes instituted by the university.

“After it happened, I had never gone to a fraternity again,” said Joseph Bertolami, a senior studying chemical engineering. “I just know at that point, parties at fraternities became so secretive. The culture changed dramatically almost within a month after it happened.”

The hazing that caused an avoidable death called the entire university to action. The Class of 2020 is the only group of students who experienced Penn State before the tragedy and have seen the consequences play out. Class members say they have noticed the shift both on- and off-campus.

Penn State instituted restrictions including the prohibition of underage possession or consumption of alcohol in chapter houses, limiting the attendance of social events to the legal capacity of the house and no tolerance for hazing within Greek and all other recognized student organizations.

Penn State developed more engaging orientation programming that focused heavily on resources available to students. For instance, Penn State’s Responsible Action Protocol and Pennsylvania’s Medical Amnesty Law offer students protection from being punished or prosecuted for drinking or drug possession when they seek help for someone who’s passed out, unconscious and unresponsive from drinking or drugs.

“The tragedy definitely sparked action from the ad ministration, which I think is a really positive thing,” said Laura McKinney, senior and president of University Park Undergraduate Association. “I think there is a very positive thing that came out of (Piazza’s death), and I can definitely see that there has been a shift in students knowing that there (are resources).”

Cassandra Nedd, a senior studying vertebrate physiology, experienced Greek life before she joined a sorority and during her time in Phi Sigma Rho until she recently left. She noticed the changes immediately.

“Obviously, before there were quite literally no rules for the most part,” Nedd said, referring to the time before Piazza’s death. “Everything was kind of a free for all.

“Then they sent out rule books with all the new rules— day-long rules and the amount of socials you could have semester, you had to have sober people at events.”

Penn State’s Interfraternity Council decided to restrict students from being recruited until they have completed 14 academic credits at University Park. They also focused heavily on limiting social engagements and the recruitment process while the university made efforts to educate students on the emergency resources available to them.

Former IFC president James Brad, feels hopeful for the organization’s future and Penn State working together ensure students’ safety and well-being.

“I think the community is in a good place to continue its improvements,” said Brady. “The chapter presidents I’ve worked with have been great, and I think the IFC can empower them to be even more successful in their roles."

QUESTIONING THE PROCESS

While students are hopeful about Greek life’s future in the post-Piazza era at Penn State, the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, where Piazza died, remains, looming as reminder of what happened that night. Its future remains unsettled as the university and the owners of the fraternity are locked in a fierce legal battle.

This has students questioning the process the university uses to remove fraternities from their houses as it could also impact the future of Greek life here.

After Piazza’s death in February 2017, Penn State permanently banned the Beta Theta Pi fraternity chapter from campus a month later. The university later cited a 1928 deed that says the property could revert to Penn State’ ownership if it were no longer used as a fraternity house.

However, the owners are suing for the rights to the house because they believe Penn State is taking advantage of Piazza’s death to gain control of the house.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers explained the process by which a fraternity or sorority gets suspended by the university.

“A suspended fraternity or sorority is one that has lost all rights and privileges associated with being a recognized student organization at the university,” Powers said. “Loss or suspension of recognition means that they cannot participate in any Greek-life activities and are prohibited from participating in any university function as a group, including Homecoming and THON. For all intents and purposes, a fraternity or sorority does not exist in the Penn State community when it loses recognition.”

Various fraternities, as well as sororities, have been suspended by Penn State in recent years for a variety of reasons, including hazing, risk management violations and failure to comply with university policies and expectations.

Fraternity houses are privately owned and in most cases it is the owner's discretion whether to allow members to continue living there. State College Borough has enforced zoning violations against suspended fraternities whose members continue to live in their houses without receiving a change of use permit, but that has been challenged in court.

ADJUST, NOT RUSH

Despite Greek life playing a major factor in some students’ lives at Penn State, some used their first semester to adjust to a new environment away from home instead of focusing on rushing.

Freshman Caroline Pelleiter said she didn’t feel disappointed that she couldn’t rush during her first semester.

“I think waiting until the spring semester is good because it helps freshmen get acclimated to Penn State, before getting involved with Greek life,” Pelleiter said. “They get to establish themselves in other clubs, which I think is beneficial.”

Madeline Chimento, a freshman, agreed she was not missing out on anything special, even though she plans on rushing a sorority in the future. Chimento has seen how Greek life has impacted her friends at other universities.

“I have friends at Clemson that got into a sorority within their first week of college,” Chimento said. “For me, I don’t know if I want to do something until I’m a couple months in at the university, to see what life is like. I think it’s good that the university put those restrictions into action.”

Peyton Mahalick, a freshman studying public relations and advertising, feels that if she had the opportunity to rush in her first semester, it would have a big impact on her four years at Penn State.

“I don’t think it would have a super-big impact on other students, but I definitely feel that for me it would have a big impact,” Mehalick said. “Whenever I have a lot going on, I tend to freak out. I do know of friends where they rush in the fall at other universities, and I know their grades aren’t as good and they tend to only stick with their sororities.”

Mehalick noted that by not having the pressure of rushing in the fall, it has allowed her to make friends outside of those interested in Greek life.

With Piazza’s death, Mehalick feels that there is a negative perception of Penn State as a consequence of the tragedy, but she recognizes the progress made stemming from the university’s call to action.

“I know that there are problems with fraternities at every university, but I feel that especially at Penn State, whenever there is a scandal it blows up,” Mehalick said. “There’s definitely a black cloud that hangs over Penn State and while that isn’t easy at times, I think Penn State has taken what happened with Timothy and made Greek life a lot better.”

Matt Brownlow, David Pollack and Sean Hannegan are Comm460 journalism students at Penn State.

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