By Geoff Rushton
Jim and Evelyn Piazza say they are disturbed by a Centre County grand jury’s report that claims Penn State knew about and did little to stop hazing and excessive drinking among fraternities, as well as the university’s response to the report.
The death of their son Timothy was the catalyst for the grand jury’s 10-month investigation of the university’s fraternity culture. He died in February, the result of injuries sustained from falls during an alcohol-fueled bid acceptance event at Beta Theta Pi fraternity.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller released the report and discussed its conclusions and recommendations at a press conference on Friday morning. The report faulted the university for not taking serious action to curb problems in Greek life before Piazza’s death and the Interfraternity Council for fostering a dangerous environment. Penn State, the report says, was aware of “a pattern of hazing and excessive alcohol consumption” in Greek life for at least a decade.
“We are shaken and appalled by the findings of Penn State’s long time knowledge of dangerous hazing, the excessive drinking culture, sexual assaults, and other abusive behavior, and the University’s preference to ignore and/or condone such behavior, to better promote itself as a ‘fun place to go to school’ rather than a great place to get an education,” the Piazzas said in a statement.
The university, in a formal response appended to the grand jury report and in a statement issued Friday afternoon, again expressed sorrow for Tim Piazza’s death and said a number of the recommendations for fraternity reforms recommended are similar to actions already undertaken by the university. But the school said it was disappointed with the conclusions, saying the report “ignores totally, or criticizes and dismisses these major Penn State efforts without analysis or constructive recommendation.”
Those efforts have included taking over the disciplinary process for fraternity and sorority conduct violations — a process previously helmed by Greek governing organizations like the IFC — and numerous changes related to alcohol use, new member recruitment and training and education programs
Hazing and binge drinking are widespread problems nationally, and the university has been working to address them but cannot do it alone, the school’s statement said, while also outlining the measures it has taken since Piazza’s death.
Jim and Evelyn Piazza said they are “disturbed” by the university’s response, which they said “was more of the same rhetoric that we have heard for the past 10 months.”
“It is clear from the report that the University knew about the deep rooted problems, and that they were significant,” the Piazzas said. “Instead of taking action against them, they allowed them to continue in hopes that somehow they would rectify themselves, through student governance, until of course Tim died and the world began to watch.”
They said many of the changes promised by the university have not yet been made and said over the past 10 years Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims was in a position to make changes and did not.
The university’s statement on Friday — which was a response to the grand jury report, not the Piazza’s comments — said Sims and other administrators have, for more than a decade, “stepped up education and prevention programs like medical amnesty, substance free housing, mandatory alcohol education, and tougher enforcement of student conduct violations.”
The Piazzas also said that they “wholeheartedly endorse” the 12 recommendations made by the grand jury, which go beyond university actions and recommend changes to toughen Pennsylvania laws on hazing and furnishing alcohol to minors.
“We have already begun to pursue the legislative changes with State Senator Jake Corman and are advocates of the proposed changes and recommendations,” the Piazzas said. “From the beginning, we have discussed many of the recommendations with President [Eric] Barron and have requested, on more than a dozen occasions, to meet with the Penn State Board of Trustees to discuss our recommendations and the lack of implementation of their own new protocols and changes. Those requests have still not been granted.”
For its part, the university says it, too, has been advocating for stricter hazing laws and stronger penalties for alcohol law violations.
The Piazzas, meanwhile, are hopeful that the criminal charges against former Beta Theta Pi brothers make their way in front of a jury. In the criminal case, 27 defendants currently face charges, but the case is in a holding pattern while various motions and proceedings are resolved. It could also be moving from the DA’s office to the state Attorney General. Parks Miller lost her re-election bid to Bernie Cantorna, who said he has a conflict of interest in the case and has asked Attorney General Josh Shapiro to have his office take over, a request Shapiro said he is reviewing.
“A Centre County jury should be given the opportunity to make a statement to the country that this behavior is not only unacceptable, it is criminal, and that the individuals involved should suffer the penalties,” the Piazzas said. “Handing down appropriate justice will be deterrence to these type of criminal activities in the future. Failure to do so will be an endorsement that this behavior is acceptable.”
Their continuing advocacy for not only the prosecution in their son’s death but also broad changes to Greek life at Penn State and nationwide is a commitment “to Tim’s memory and bringing meaning to his short life,” the Piazzas said.
“Tim will not be with us this coming Christmas day because of the failures at Penn State and the criminal activity of those charged,” they said. “If the wisdom of the Grand Jury prevails, there will be justice accomplished in his name to hopefully help others and save them from the pain and suffering that Tim had to endure for those 12 hours and that we now have to endure for our lifetime. We hope and pray that all who are watching and listening will hear our plea.”