What the Piazzas Asked for and What Penn State Is Doing in Greek Life Reforms
June 04, 2017 5:00 AM
by Geoff Rushton
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Penn State's Board of Trustees met on Friday in a special, off-cycle meeting to consider a set of reforms for fraternity and sorority life.

Those changes come after several high-profile cases involving Greek life, but the catalyst was the death of Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old from Lebanon, N.J., who suffered a fatal fall during a bid acceptance event at Beta Theta Pi fraternity on Feb. 2.

What happened to Piazza has been the subject of national media attention. After consuming large amounts of alcohol as part of an initiation ritual called the "Gauntlet," Piazza fell head first down the basement stairs of the fraternity. He fell several more times throughout the night, and according to an investigating grand jury's presentment, fraternity members were aware of his semi-conscious to unconscious condition but didn't call for help until 12 hours after his initial fall.

Piazza died on Feb. 4 after suffering a traumatic brain injury and life-threatening spleen laceration. Eighteen fraternity members have been charged related to his death and what prosecutors say were efforts to cover up evidence of hazing and underage drinking.

His parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, have spoken to several media outlets not only about their grief, but also about their motivation to work for substantial changes to fraternities at Penn State and around the country.

Prior to the board meeting on Friday, the Piazzas sent a forceful letter to trustees outlining numerous reforms they want to see Penn State make. 

"You, the BOT, have a significant obligation to do the right things, not the popular things to appease a small group of Alumni who still do not get it, to make Greek Life and all life safer at Penn State," they wrote. "Our son died on your watch because of ignorance and denial by Penn State."

The letter cites a history of "harsh hazing, excessive drinking and sexual assaults" in Penn State Greek life, problems they say Penn State administrators knew and did nothing about.

After the trustees unanimously approved the set of proposals put forth by President Eric Barron on Friday, the Piazzas' attorney, Tom Kline, told The Daily Collegian his clients were unimpressed.

Kline, who has previously indicated the family will file a lawsuit against Penn State, said that while they were glad to see the university on the same page philosophically, the measures approved were "aspirational" and that "There is nothing different than Feb. 4, which is the night Tim Piazza died.”

Penn State has a "poor track record" when it comes to disciplining fraternities, Kline said, and the family wants a timeline and formal, written policies.

“The Piazza family is looking forward to the day when we see actual written policies, procedures and regulations implemented by the Board of Trustees,” Kline said. “We hope to have a significant contributing voice in that process.”

Penn State, which had already rolled out new restrictions in the aftermath of Piazza's death, did address a number of the issues raised by the family. Some will clearly take effect immediately, while others are a bit amorphous. 

Barron and board chair Ira Lubert started out Friday's meeting echoing the Piazzas' position that the Greek system is "broken" and that Tim Piazza's death must result in action and reform.

The Piazzas said their list of needed actions will likely grow, and Barron said additional reforms are expected in the future.

Following is a look at what the Piazzas said in their letter they want to see happen and how Penn State is addressing those points.

• Support changes to state and national laws

The Piazzas' letter calls for the university to join them in advocating for changes to Pennsylvania hazing laws and "A broader Good Samaritan Law which would give an individual the ability to confidently call for help without risk of getting in trouble and the victim not getting in trouble."

Penn State's plan addresses these. The family's letter does not say what federal laws the Piazzas want to change, but Barron explained the university would support Congressional proposals to expand the Clery Act to include hazing violations.

The family wants to see hazing legislation in Pennsylvania mirroring that in Massachusetts, which has both misdemeanor and felony charges for hazing and "specifies that anyone who is witness to an incident of hazing and fails to report it to the proper authorities will be subject to criminal penalties along with the perpetrators."

Barron said current penalties for hazing in Pennsylvania are too light and that university officials would discuss with state legislators establishing harsher consequences.

In Pennsylvania, hazing is a third-degree misdemeanor. which has a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $2,500 fine. The state's hazing law also requires colleges and universities to have an anti-hazing policy and enforcement of penalties that include fines, withholding of diplomas and transcripts, and probation, suspension or dismissal. Organizations found responsible for authorizing hazing are subject to penalties up to being banned from the school.

The university also will advocate for expanding the state's medical amnesty law for underage drinking to apply to the person who needs medical assistance. The current law, passed in 2011, only applies to the first person who calls for assistance, as long as they give their real name and stay with the person until help arrives. It does not shield the person in need of medical assistance from charges such as underage drinking, nor does it protect anyone else present who may be criminally liable.

Penn State has its own policy in which a student who meets the requirements of the state law won't be disciplined for university violations, but is required to attend an alcohol education class.

Notably, Good Samaritan provisions for drug overdoses protect the person who calls and the person who overdosed. That legislation passed in 2014 as a measure in dealing with the then-burgeoning heroin and opioid crisis..

• Stricter policies, procedures, monitoring and enforcement

The Piazzas provide seven points for controlling and enforcing policies for Greek-letter organizations.

- "There should be no hazing, hazing should be clearly defined and at least as rigorous as state and federal laws, and anyone associated with hazing or failing to promptly report hazing will be subject to expulsion from the University."

The university is already required to follow state laws on hazing , with a zero-tolerance, anti-hazing policy and sanctions up to expulsion for individuals and revocation of recognition and permission to operate on campus for organizations.

Friday's measures don't directly address individual students found responsible for hazing -- that's covered in the student code of conduct. But Barron noted a renewed emphasis on zero tolerance for hazing. "Any hazing that involves alcohol, physical abuse, or puts a student's mental or physical health at risk will result in swift and permanent revocation of the University's recognition," he said.

- "There should be no providing of alcohol to underage students at Fraternity parties or rush events and anyone found to be providing alcohol to underage students will be subject to expulsion from the University."

Again, individual punishments have not been directly addressed and are covered in the student code of conduct with sanctions up to expulsion. The reforms passed on Friday incorporate new restrictions related to alcohol at social functions that were announced in March. They included several measures to curb underage drinking, including limiting the size of parties, requiring bartenders certified by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board's Responsible Alcohol Management Program (RAMP) and third-party and university monitoring at social events for alcohol law violations. 

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, officials said in March.

- "The University shall have the right and jurisdiction to enter and spot check any of the Fraternities whenever desired and will have the right to inspect all areas of the Fraternity house."

One of the responsibilities Penn State is taking out of the hands of fraternity and sorority leadership councils, the university will take on monitoring and is planning to create a Greek community relations staff.

"This is having university employees take on the responsibilities for monitoring and assessing Greek organization with the capability with those eight to 10 additional individuals of much more frequent spot checks to occur," Barron said.

A timeline for when such a staff could be in place was not provided.

- "Any Fraternity which violates the code of conduct as set forth by the University, is subject to immediate loss of recognition as a Fraternity, the Fraternity is subject to a significant fine and any members of the Fraternity will have to vacate the house."

This was not directly addressed, with the exception of hazing, for which Barron said a fraternity would lose university recognition. The code of conduct provides a range of sanctions for a wide array of student conduct issues. In general, university leaders have promised stricter enforcement of conduct rules for fraternities and in April suspended Sigma Alpha Mu for two years for a variety of violations related to alcohol and social functions

The university doesn't have much standing to force fraternity members to vacate a fraternity house. Those houses are usually private property owned by a fraternity alumni corporation, or rented by a fraternity chapter. Even Beta Theta Pi's house on North Burrowes Street is entirely surrounded by university property, but the house itself is private property. Former members were forced to vacate by the fraternity's alumni board in March after Beta had its recognition revoked.

- "All Greek Life members must attend an annual University sponsored safety class in order to remain a member in good standing."

- "All potential Greek Life pledges must attend a University sponsored safety and orientation class prior to being allowed to pledge."

This is more or less addressed in the university's plan, though full details and a timeline aren't yet known. Barron said there will be mandatory educational programs for potential members before the recruiting process, and after they become members.

"This is explicit training on expectations and negative outcomes," Barron said, noting that it may include requiring new members to read the presentment issued by the grand jury that investigated Piazza's death. 

There will be an emphasis on bystander intervention and potentially new ways to add to the university's existing anonymous reporting methods, Barron said.

Parent education is another area of focus. Each fraternity and sorority chapter will have a report card that describes its strengths and weaknesses, including metrics such as GPA, service hours and citations. That report card also will be made available as part of parent education.

"We want to spend significant effort focused on parent education... Availability of the report card, understanding the risks and rewards of Greek life, messages that we need them to reinforce with their students, specifically on alcohol, hazing and sexual assault," Barron said.

- "The University must insert itself with full legal authority to control Greek life, including ownership of housing, enabling monitoring and disciplining fraternal activity."

Fraternities and sororities are unique organizations in university life, not only at Penn State, but around the country as well. They are third-party groups with a national organization that grants member chapters based on official recognition by the university. Their activities at an organizational level are largely self-governed by councils such as the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council at Penn State. Though sororities that live together at Penn State do live in university-owned housing with dedicated sections of residence halls, fraternities often live in houses that are privately owned by an alumni board or corporation.

For the university to assert full legal authority will require, were it to choose to do so, a sea change in what it means to be a fraternity at Penn State, an undoubtedly complex process. The university's greatest control was in granting or revoking recognition.

Piazza's death, however, was a spark for the university to hand down new restrictions on social events and new member recruitment which the organizations have little choice but to accept. 

In the short-term, Penn State is exerting the greatest control over Greek-letter organizations by taking over the fraternity and sorority organizational misconduct process, which was previously handled by the councils. The university is also taking over the responsibility for monitoring.

- "Expel any students that you already know had culpability in our son’s death."

This was not addressed. The Piazzas said university leaders have seen parts of the fraternity house surveillance video from the night their son fell. District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller called  that video "the story of this crime," since it chronicled the entire night and reportedly showed fraternity members providing alcohol, their various efforts to bring Piazza around after his drunken fall, his falls and dire condition throughout the night, and members debating what to do the following morning when Piazza was completely unresponsive.

The Piazzas say individuals in the video are clearly identifiable, including members of the fraternity and members of Trilogy, a "special interest organization," which attended the party at the Beta house the night of Piazza's fall. Trilogy was formed by former members of the Delta Delta Delta (Tri-Delta) chapter at Penn State, which was shut down by its national organization in 2009 over hazing allegations. Though it functions like a sorority, it operates outside the bounds of the Panhellenic Council and does not call itself a sorority.

We know that Penn State placed a graduation hold on any senior named in the grand jury presentment. We know Penn State has done a student conduct investigation. Because the student disciplinary process is mostly protected by law as part of a student's educational record, we don't know where the disciplinary process stands.

All 18 former fraternity members charged are still listed in the university's student directory. Three members of Trilogy, none of whom were charged with a crime and whose interviews with police were included in the grand jury presentment, are also still listed as students.

- "Fire anyone in the Administration who turned a blind eye to the issues in Greek Life. This starts with Damon Sims... 

- "Fire Tim Bream – he lived in the Fraternity house as their advisor and he was there the night of this pledge/ hazing event."

The Piazzas called for the termination of Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs, who they say was well aware of the problems in Greek life long before Tim Piazza's death. They say Sims and others said at a Parents Weekend that there was no hazing at Penn State.

"When many parents of children who were currently pledging spoke out and talked about the hazing the children were facing, the response was 'unless the student reports it, it didn’t happen,'" they wrote. "We have letters from other parents telling us the same thing. Again, he (and others) turned a blind eye. Had the Administration listened to these parents, our son would be alive today."

They also cited the task force on fraternity and sorority life commissioned by Barron and chaired by Sims in 2015, months after allegations against Kappa Delta Rho of hazing and nude photos of women being taken and shared without their consent. The task force, the Piazzas said, was by Sims' own admission ineffective.

In March, Sims said that the task force met two dozen times in 2015 and 2016 but could not reach consensus on a number of critical issues. Their conversations, however, produced many of the new restrictions on alcohol and new member recruitment that were initially rolled out in March after Piazza's death.

Bream, meanwhile, was the live-in adviser at Beta Theta Pi and has been the head athletic trainer for Penn State football since 2012.

"There is no way he didn’t know there was an illegal hazing event with alcohol going on and because he lived there for years, there is no way he didn’t know there was a history of illegal hazing and excessive drinking going on (as evidenced by years of video tapes)," the Piazzas wrote. "He had to walk through the lower level of the house every day and as you know the smell of alcohol and vomit does not just disappear and the after effects of the parties doesn’t get cleaned up immediately. He turned a blind eye for years. Had he reported this behavior, JUST ONCE, our son’s life would have been saved. He is responsible and needs to go! I understand that he is a part of the beloved Football team, but they will survive without him."

Bream's role as adviser was unaffiliated with the university. He was not charged and is mentioned just once in the grand jury presentment, when a fraternity member said there was a discussion about going upstairs to notify Bream while they tried to decide what to do about Piazza the morning after his fall. Instead, the fraternity member said, they chose to wait until the chapter president, Brendan Young, arrived to decide what to do.

Parks Miller said investigators looked at everyone involved with the house, including Bream, though she did not mention him by name. She said there was no evidence he had committed a crime.

Asked if the university had comment on the Piazzas' demands to fire Sims and Bream, a Penn State spokesperson provided a university statement that did not address the issue.

"First, we want to express our deepest sympathy to the Piazzas for the loss of their son, Timothy Piazza. Our focus, as evident in [Friday's] announcement, is on taking decisive action to promote student safety."

Of the call to expel students and fire staff, Kline, the Piazzas' attorney, told the Collegian, “There was noticeable silence about the proposals of holding accountable those who contributed to the death of Tim Piazza.”

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