A Year In Penn State Greek Life
This weekend marks one year since Tim Piazza died from injuries he sustained falling down the basements steps after a night of alcohol-fueled hazing at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. It goes without saying a lot has changed for Penn State Greek life in the past 365 days.
Then-sophomore Tim Piazza left home on February 2, 2017 with the expectation of getting “fucked up” during rituals to accept his bid offer to become a brother of Beta Theta Pi’s Alpha Upsilon chapter at Penn State. He had no idea the extent of what awaited him when he arrived at the fraternity house that Thursday night.
As we learned later, Beta Theta Pi had planned its bid acceptance hazing activities around an obstacle course they called the gauntlet. Pledges were forced to take 10-second “pulls” from a bottle of Crowne Rouse vodka, shotgun beers, play a version of beer pong, and play a version of dizzy bat, which involves spinning around “a certain number of times” before drinking alcohol from the bat itself. Pledges were also required to drink from a wine bag and brothers poured beer on them as they moved through the stations.
After consuming at least 18 drinks in less than an hour and a half, Piazza fell down the basement steps multiple times throughout the night and sustained serious injuries, including head injuries and a ruptured spleen.
Students who were supposed to become Piazza’s brothers waited nearly 12 hours after his initial fall to call paramedics, and then did so only after 45 minutes of attempts to dress him and Google phrases like “falling asleep after head injury” and “binge drinking, alcohol, bruising or discoloration, cold feet and cold hands.”
Piazza was transported first to Mt. Nittany Medical Center and then to Hershey Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead early Saturday morning. The news broke publicly Saturday afternoon, and Penn State’s Interfraternity Council immediately suspended all social activities scheduled for that evening. The university then placed an indefinite moratorium on socials.
Penn State and Beta Theta Pi’s national organization both suspended the chapter pending investigation into the incident. Two weeks later, the university levied its first sanctions against Greek organizations — just hours before the start of Penn State’s annual 46-hour dance marathon, better known simply as THON. Administrators meant business.
The regulations announced that afternoon included ceasing all spring 2017 recruitment activities, extending the social moratorium through the end of the semester, and subjecting fraternities to random compliance checks by university officials in the common areas of fraternity houses. They also outlined additional requirements for future socials following the moratorium.
As investigations into what happened at Beta Theta Pi’s bid acceptance continued, the university imposed additional regulations on Greek life, including a deferred recruitment system that forbade first-semester freshmen from joining fraternities and sororities. Administrators also chose to limit ‘wet’ socials to 10 per semester, a significant reduction from the previous limit of 45 social functions with alcohol per semester.
“It is going to be a very difficult experience for this university community, so I think the right thing to do is…try to mitigate these problems right now and not wait for additional bad news to come our way,” Penn State Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims said at a student government meeting on April 5, 2017. “We cannot sit back idly.”
Sims added he was “pretty certain” he knew exactly what happened on the night of Beta Theta Pi’s bid acceptance, and exactly one month later, we found out exactly what he was referring to when then-Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller held a press conference to release a Grand Jury presentment on the case and announce initial charges against the fraternity chapter and eighteen now-former brothers of the fraternity. It was clear from the start that Parks Miller would not take any part of this case lightly.
At preliminary hearings held intermittently through the summer, prosecutors and defense attorneys rehashed the evidence revealed in the grand jury presentment. The most serious charges in the case were dismissed after these preliminary hearings, but Parks Miller later refiled them.
By the time school resumed for the fall semester, lead investigator David Scicchitano had confirmed additional surveillance video of the fraternity’s basement had been deleted manually instead of being turned over to the police. He did not name the suspect at that time.
When he discovered footage from additional camera angles in the basement had been deleted, Scicchitano obtained a search warrant for the footage and turned it over the an FBI lab, which was ultimately able to recover the deleted video.
The new tapes showed more evidence of fraternity brothers forcing Piazza to drink at a party held in the basement with female organization Trilogy. Based on what was shown, the district attorney’s office filed additional charges against 12 new individuals and five individuals who were already facing charges in the case.
Shortly before charges were filed against these individuals, Penn State completed its conduct investigation process for the 32 students originally implicated in the matter.
No names were released with this announcement due to privacy guidelines, so it remains unknown which students were involved in Beta Theta Pi or Trilogy. Seven students faced disciplinary action, six students were not charged, and the remaining 19 students took conduct withdrawals from the university, which will be noted on their transcripts.
When Parks Miller filed charges against 12 new individuals, the university said it would begin conduct investigations for them as well. No conclusions for these investigations have yet been announced.
Parks Miller released a grand jury presentment on the culture of Penn State Greek life at the end of the fall 2017 semester in what would be one of her final actions in the case she’s taken personal responsibility for. In addition to outlining what happened at Beta Theta Pi in the years, months, and weeks leading up to Piazza’s death, the report included details of other incidents within the Penn State Greek community.
At its core, the report criticized Penn State for creating an “invisible wall” between the university and the Interfraternity Council and its chapters, which Sims repeatedly described to the grand jury as “private organizations.” It’s undeniable that fraternity chapters are registered student organizations and must abide by the same rules and regulations as other student organizations, including banking through Penn State’s Associated Student Activities office. Conclusions slammed administrators allowing two previous iterations of the Greek Life Task Force assembled in the past 10 years to fizzle out without creating any lasting change.
The report draws attention to virtually every flaw in how Penn State has historically handled the adjudication processes for Greek life wrongdoings, of which there are many. In keeping with its purpose, the grand jury clearly completed its due diligence in hearing testimony from multiple administrators, student affairs staffers, and Interfraternity Council leaders. It concluded with 12 recommendations for the university, many of which had already been implemented in some variation before report’s completion and public release.
Unsurprisingly, the university disputed much of the report’s findings, vehemently defending itself in dozens of pages of legal rebuttal. To our knowledge, Penn State has not implemented any additional measures since the release of the grand jury report.
So what’s next for the Greeks? It’s hard to say.
Universities around the nation have suspended their own Greek systems due to hazing. Although Tim Piazza was the first to lose his life to a fraternity in 2017, he was far from the last.
Louisiana State student Maxwell Gruver died in September after he was found unconscious at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house he was pledging. Florida State student Andrew Coffey died in November after he passed out at an off-campus fraternity party while pledging Pi Kappa Phi. Texas State student Matthew Ellis died in November after he was found unresponsive following an off-campus fraternity party for his initiation into Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Like Piazza, all three young men died in part from hazing-induced alcohol intake.
Even with all that’s happened over the past year, not much has changed since Sims spoke to Penn State’s student government in April.
“I’m also hopeful that if we all work together — if everybody actually comes together in a well-intentioned effort to try to find good solutions and balance various interests, I think we might have a fighting chance,” Sims said. If that doesn’t happen: “My prediction is in 20 years the Greek experience will be in Jeopardy.”
Beta Theta Pi is only one of the 12 Interfraternity Council chapters currently suspended. If things continue to go awry, twenty years seems like a generous prediction.