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Penn State Announces New Fraternity and Sorority Restrictions; Beta Theta Pi Ban Made Permanent

by on March 30, 2017 12:00 PM

Updated with statements from Interfraternity Council President Dean Vetere and the national Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

"Enough is enough."

That was the message from Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims on Thursday as the university announced new restrictions for fraternities and sororities and made permanent the ban on Beta Theta Pi fraternity at the school in the wake of a student death last month.

Citing "deeply disturbing evidence" that has emerged in an investigation following the death of student Timothy Piazza, Sims said the university has permanently revoked recognition of Beta Theta Pi. The university had previously revoked recognition for at least five years, but now the fraternity is banned from ever returning to Penn State.

In a statement, the university said its student misconduct investigation found "a persistent pattern of serious alcohol abuse, hazing, and the use and sale of illicit drugs."

Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore from Lebanon, N.J., died from injuries sustained when he fell down the basement steps at the fraternity house during a bid acceptance party. Police said alcohol and fraternity hazing may have played a role, and that Piazza was intoxicated when he fell at about 11 p.m. on Feb. 2. Paramedics were not called until 10:49 a.m. the following morning. Authorities have not said what Piazza's reported condition was in the hours after the fall. Piazza was unconscious when responders arrived that morning.

He was pronounced dead on Feb. 4, and an autopsy, which ruled his death accidental, stated he died from multiple traumatic injuries.

State College Police and the Centre County District Attorney's office are investigating the case as well. Sims could not comment on the specifics of either the ongoing criminal or student conduct investigations.

Following Piazza's death, the university suspended social functions with alcohol for fraternities and sororities and announced some restrictions for when events with alcohol do resume. On Thursday, the school expanded on that, stating events with alcohol will be permitted in the fall but outlining a number of changes that will be in place starting with the 2017-18 academic year.

Those changes include:

- Daylong events will no longer be permitted and attendance at social events will be limited to the legal capacity of the house. "These very large parties that have flowed outside and at times have been as many as a thousand will not be permitted next year," Sims said in a phone call with reporters on Thursday. He said he believes the largest fraternity house capacity is around 225.

- No more than 10 social events with alcohol per fraternity chapter per semester will be permitted, a significant reduction from the 45 currently allowed by the Interfraternity Council.

- Service of alcohol will only be permitted by servers trained in the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's Responsible Alcohol Management Program (RAMP). Only beer and wine will be permitted and no kegs will be allowed. Sims said compliance with state alcohol laws will be monitored and enforced "pretty aggressively," using a combination of third parties, student leadership and university staff.

- Failure by fraternities and sororities to effectively prevent underage drinking and overconsumption of alcohol may lead to greater restrictions, including declaring the entire Greek-letter system to be completely dry.

- Formal recruitment of fraternity and sorority members, known as "rush," will be deferred from fall to spring semester for 2017-18. After that, for students to participate in recruitment, they must have earned 12 credits while enrolled full-time. The possibility of deferring recruitment of members until they are sophomores will be considered for 2018-19 and the university plans to continue discussions with the organizations about limiting the size of new member classes.

- Sims said that while hazing has never been tolerated, if the university learns of any hazing involving alcohol or physical abuse, it will likely lead to the chapter's recognition being revoked.

While Piazza's death was a catalyst for the changes -- as well as the recent case of Kappa Delta Rho involving allegations of nude photos of women being taken and shared without their consent and hazing -- Sims said they are a culmination of issues.

He said that university research has found fraternity and sorority members are four times more likely to self-report heavy drinking; that sorority members are 50 percent more likely than members of the general female student population to be sexually assaulted; and that fraternity members are 62 percent more likely than the general male student population to commit a sexual assault.

In the week after Piazza's death, the university received five accusations of hazing within the Greek-letter community.

Sims said that prior to Piazza's death and the ensuing investigation, he would have considered Beta Theta Pi to be among the three best fraternities at Penn State.

"They had a full-time live-in adult presence. They had a house that was declared to be alcohol-free. In fact the first page of their member booklet said any member caught possessing or consuming alcohol will be immediately expelled," Sims said. "And [they had] a national organization very invested in that commitment. They were in a house I would argue is one of the nicest fraternity houses in the country. They had a really strong alumni leadership and involvement in that group. And yet, what happened at Beta fell far short of our expectations for the group and far short of the stated expectations for itself.

"We came to understand that even in what we thought were the best circumstances in that community, really terrible tragedies could occur."

Conversations about fraternity and sorority reform have been ongoing, prior to to Piazza's death. President Eric Barron formed a task force on fraternity and sorority life comprised of various constituencies. Sims said that group met two dozen times, and while they did not reach consensus on a number of issues, their conversations produced many of the changes announced on Thursday.

Piazza's death proved to be a tipping point leading to their implementation.

"It’s been a task we’ve been engaged in for quite some time and it preceded the events at Beta," Sims said. "But certainly I think the experience at Beta and what we learned about what happened there juxtaposed with what we thought was happening there and what they declared for themselves really forced us into a recognition that this has gone too far for too long. Enough is enough. We need to move in different directions and we’re going to lead people in those directions."

Fraternities and sororities are private organizations that have long been subject mostly to self-governance, but which usually require university recognition to establish and maintain their chapters.

"This has not been working the way it should. We will not tolerate it to continue on the path its on," Sims said. "We do believe that with our strong support and engagement with these other parties we can achieve outcomes here that are what they should be within these communities and actually achieve the values and purposes they aspire to."

A number of other changes are possible as well. Those include, according to the university, "significantly increased staff for the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life; the launch of a new search for leadership of that office; discussion about the possibility of residential staff within fraternity houses; publication of a report card providing data on the status of these groups; consideration of improvements to and new locations for chapter houses; regular meetings among chapter leadership, including students and alumni, and University staff to assess progress; and increased emphasis on educational programming that encourages scholarship, leadership, service, philanthropy and personal development."

Though Sims said that fraternity and sorority members were part of the ongoing discussion related to the task force, Interfraternity Council leadership said it was not consulted about some of the decisions announced on Thursday.

In a statement on behalf of the organization, Dean Vetere, Interfraternity Council president, said the organization is "deeply disappointed" that students were not consulted in the decisions, according to Onward State.

"The health and safety of the Penn State community is the Interfraternity Council’s top priority," Vetere wrote. "We are ready to address critical issues in our community head on, but we don’t accept that restricting students’ basic right to choose when they join an organization is an effective way to build partnership to achieve significant change.

"We are deeply disappointed the university administration did not follow through on its promise to engage students before making critical decisions. The best way to create authentic, lasting change is for all stakeholders to collaborate on the development and enforcement of meaningful standards.

"We stand united in creating a safe Penn State community as we contemplate our next steps."

For the former Beta Theta Pi chapter, it's not yet clear what will happen with the fraternity house, located at 220 N. Burrowes St. The house is privately-owned by the chapter's alumni board and former members of the chapter have been moved to campus housing for the remainder of the spring semester.

The house, though,is a private property surrounded by Penn State's University Park campus property.

"It would be our hope that the house would be put to good use and this is a complex issue that certainly requires discussion by a number of parties," a university spokesperson said.

In a statement provided to StateCollege.com Thursday afternoon, the national fraternity said it is "disappointed in the university's announcement."

"Given the levels of cooperation Beta Theta Pi has maintained to this point, we are disappointed in the university’s unexpected announcement today," the statement read. "While we stand by our February decision to close the Penn State chapter, the Fraternity’s disappointment stems from both its long-term desire to return to the Penn State Greek community and the belief that it can be a part of the solution.

"Beta Theta Pi brought more than 130 years of positive contributions to Penn State’s campus, even being named Chapter of the Year by the university twice since 2010 – as recently as 2015. In recent interviews, the university’s senior leadership recognized the chapter’s superior support from the national organization and characterized Beta as among the three best fraternities at Penn State. 

"Unfortunately, a tragic incident led to a discovery that the chapter’s culture had strayed from our founding mission. The Fraternity takes its reputation as a fraternal leader seriously, and we remain steadfast in the belief that the recent actions of certain Penn State students are not indicative of the high-quality fraternity experience that Beta Theta Pi is known for in State College and beyond."



Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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