Grand Jury Issues Report on Penn State Fraternities, Makes 12 Recommendations
By Elissa Hill and Geoff Rushton
At a lengthy press conference on Friday morning, outgoing Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller announced a county grand jury’s report and 12 recommendations on Penn State Greek life and related laws and procedures. Parks Miller outlined multiple reasons and related instances that led the grand jury to reach the conclusions listed in the report.
The report comes after a 10 month investigation following the death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza, who sustained fatal injuries after falling multiple times during a bid acceptance event in February at the now-banned Beta Theta Pi fraternity. A grand jury report recommending charges in that case in May noted a "permissive atmosphere" fostered by the Penn State Interfraternity council which it said emboldened fraternity members "to repeatedly act with disregard for human life."
Parks Miller said during the press conference on Friday that the grand jury “dove into” other instances of hazing and excessive drinking at Penn State. The report includes information on Beta Theta Pi 10 years ago, as well as James Vivenzio, a former Kappa Delta Rho pledge who says he reported excessive hazing to university administrators in 2015; Joe Dado, who died in 2009 from a fall on campus after drinking at two fraternities; Marquise Braham, a Penn State Altoona student who took his own life in 2014 after alleged fraternity hazing; and fraternity hazing instances around the country.
The grand jury report concludes that alleged hazing at Beta Theta Pi is not unique to the fraternity and that the Interfraternity Council and the university bear responsibility. Hazing among fraternities at Penn State is "rampant and pervasive," the report says.
“Big shock that [the hazing at Beta Theta Pi] happened here,” Parks Miller said. “The treatment [the grand jury] found, was not unique to that fraternity or those brothers.”
Parks Miller insisted the Interfraternity Council must have oversight in its governing of fraternities at Penn State. The IFC was previously a self-governing entity, but has since lost some of its power in light of Piazza’s death. Penn State’s Office of Student Conduct now handles discipline of all student organizations, including fraternities and sororities.
“The IFC’s regulations are a joke,” Parks Miller said. “Who’s looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re doing it right?”
Parks Miller continued on this point, discussing the spot checkers the Interfraternity Council hired to check on fraternities during socials to look for violations. The third-party company, St. Moritz, would write reports on any violations they came across and submit this paperwork to the IFC. The grand jury found, however, that these reports often never made their way to the appropriate offices at Penn State.
“There is no paperwork, which must means there are no violations. Really?” Parks Miller said. “Their record keeping is a sham.”
“Choosing to allow a self-run student organization to say ‘were here doing a great job,’ and never once asking St. Moritz, ‘let me see the paperwork, let me see what’s going on.’ When did [Penn State] say “let’s check in periodically to see the job St. Moritz is doing.'”
According to the report, staff from St. Moritz testified that fraternities constrained what they could observe when they came to check for violations and checkers were required to wait outside until a member of the fraternity's executive board escorted them through the house. St. Moritz's operation manager said they were reduced to "glorified baby sitters."
A supervisor for St. Moritz said "...a lot of these kids are just -- they feel entitled, that nothing can stop them." He added that at one fraternity a checker "saw a guy doing cocaine," and that St. Moritz was told he was kicked out of the fraternity. Two months later a St. Moritz checker returned to the house and learned the individual was now an executive board member of the fraternity, according to the report.
Parks Miller took issue with the university's position that fraternities were independent organizations and the school was limited in how it could manage them.
“‘They’re separate and we’re powerless,’ Penn state said. That is not true,” she said.
Parks Miller asserted that Penn State provides the Interfraternity Council with marketing materials, office space in the HUB, website space, common space for students to meet, and other things which allow them to recruit students to join fraternities. Every registered student organization at Penn State has access to office space in the HUB, funds for office supplies, access to marketing materials, and resources within the Associated Student Activities.
“I’m deeply disappointed by Penn State’s response,” Parks Miller said. Ultimately, she said, Penn State says it didn’t know about the hazing, could not have ever known, and even if it did know, there’s nothing it could have done.
“That’s just 100 percent not true. That’s in the grand jury report — the grand jury was able to see through the IFC and the university,” Parks Miller said.
She referenced an article published by Onward State in August outlining how Penn State’s new Greek life regulations could easily be circumvented, noting her belief that the university mocked the comparisons.
“They’re afraid to embrace more significant change,” she said of Penn State.
After more than an hour discussing the 200-plus page grand jury report, Parks Miller outlined the recommendations.
The grand jury report concluded the following 12 recommendations. Notable among them is a recommendation for the creation of Tim’s Law, which suggests tougher criminal penalties for hazing.
- Cure the Currently Deficient Hazing Law – The Grand Jury recommends the creation of “Tim’s Law,” an anti-hazing regulation that would create a multi-tiered system for a hazing offense that is contingent on the severity of the harm possible as well as any harm actually inflicted on through hazing. This law would strengthen the default of hazing to a 2nd degree misdemeanor with increased legal ramifications for hazing that causes or risks bodily injury (upgraded to potential 1st degree misdemeanor), hazing that causes or risks serious bodily injury (2nd degree felony), or hazing that results in death (1st degree felony). This law would be codified under Title 18 (the Crimes Code), effectively taking it out from the Education Act.
- Strengthen Law for Furnishing Alcohol to Minors
- Create a Pledge’s Bill of Rights
- Establish a Hazing Hotline
- Discipline Individual students who violate the hazing laws with actual zero tolerance
- Strengthen Penn State’s hazing policy
- Implement and enforce severe restrictions in alcohol use because incremental changes have proven useless and are disproportionate to the problem
- Penn State must enforce these policies that protect Penn State students
- Penn State should direct resources to the expansion of its Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and Office of Student Conduct
- Penn State should adequately fund and staff the offices responsible for Greek life
- Universities should train all employees — including students — to recognize the gravity of hazing and to report it immediately
- The General Assembly should enact compulsory reporting processes for any elementary, secondary, or higher education institution, including identifying mandatory reporters
After highlighting the key recommendations, Parks Miller invited Marquise Braham’s father, Rich, to speak.
“What we heard today was explosive, and you ask yourself, ‘What took so long?'” Braham said. “The problems are institutional, and that’s what I told the grand jury.”
“[Marquise] didn’t join a frat to get hazed. Nobody does,” Braham said.
"Nobody should die because they wanted to join a fraternity," he later added.
Rich Braham, father of Marquise Braham, speaks at the press conference announcing a Centre County grand jury's report on fraternity culture at Penn State.
He praised Parks Miller for her determination to get to the truth in the Beta Theta Pi case. He said that the Blair County DA did not push for evidence in the same way. “This grand jury report about my son is what we have been waiting for.”
“Their lives weren’t misdemeanors to their families. But hazing, in this country, is a misdemeanor crime, even when someone dies,” Braham said.
Braham also said the Blair County DA prosecuting his son’s case ultimately recused himself due to apparent conflict of interest, turning the case over to the PA Attorney General’s Office. Parks Miller’s successor, Bernie Cantorna, is attempting to follow suit in the Piazza case.
Parks Miller also invited Vivenzio and his lawyer Aaron Freiwald to speak. Freiwald and Vivenzio both expressed their concern with what they view as the university’s lack of action in the Beta Theta Pi case as well as other hazing instances in the past.
“Penn State, you screwed up. Don’t you learn from your mistakes? What is this, Joe Paterno all over again? Do we really need to go through this again?” Vivenzio said.
James Vivenzio speaks at the press conference announcing a Centre County grand jury's report on fraternity culture at Penn State.
Parks Miller closed the press conference clarifying that Penn State is not legally bound to follow any of the recommendations put forth by the grand jury. The university could alter its course of action, implement any part of the recommendations separately, or simply choose not to implement any of the recommendations at all.
"If it takes eliminating these dens of depravity that won't change their ways, then do it," she said.
A university response appended to the report says Penn State "has made extraordinary efforts, and shown an unwavering commitment to promoting safety and accountability and aligning the values and behaviors of the Greek system with the expectations of the university."
Penn State has implemented a number of major changes since Piazza's death, taking control of the disciplinary system for fraternity and sorority violations, placing new restrictions on alcohol use, altering new member recruitment, hiring new staff to monitor Greek life and establishing new education and training plans, among others.
The school's response says "the report ignores totally or criticizes and dismisses these major Penn State efforts without analysis or constructive recommendation."