Corman, Piazzas Unveil Sweeping New Anti-Hazing Legislation

by Geoff Rushton

As a preliminary hearing began Friday for 11 of the 26 former fraternity brothers charged in connection with their son’s hazing death, Jim and Evelyn Piazza joined Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman on the steps of the Centre County Courthouse to introduce a proposed new anti-hazing law that Corman described as the most comprehensive in the nation.

The new Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law would create a tiered system for grading hazing offenses, stronger penalties and new requirements for enforcement and reporting by educational institutions.

“This law, if enacted, will change the landscape in Pennsylvania and hopefully will become the model for states to adopt throughout the country,” Jim Piazza said. “It will deter misconduct. It will make college and Greek life safer. It will save lives and prevent serious injuries that we will never know about, but that’s OK. And, it will truly hold men and women who commit the crime of hazing fully accountable.”

The Piazzas and Penn State officials have both been working with Corman on the new legislation since the death of 19-year-old sophomore Tim Piazza, who sustained fatal injuries at a pledge event at the now-banned Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

Currently, hazing is only classified as second-degree misdemeanor in Pennsylvania. Senate Bill 1090 was introduced in the legislature on Friday and under the proposed law, hazing that results in bodily injury to a student remains a misdemeanor. However, hazing that results in serious bodily injury or death is classified as aggravated hazing, a third-degree felony.

The new law also would add summary offenses for hazing that does not result in injury.

Corman said the current law does not always allow the charge to reflect the severity of the crime.

“This will give prosecutors around the commonwealth much more flexibility to match up the charge with the severity of the crime,” he said.

New organizational and institutional hazing provisions also are included in the legislation.

The organizational hazing offense is for fraternities, sororities or clubs that knowingly or recklessly allow hazing or aggravated hazing. Penalties include fines or forfeiture of property.

Corman said the provision will allow organizations to be held accountable. He noted a recent op-ed by Penn State President Eric Barron, who was in attendance at the press conference, in which Barron expressed frustration that three fraternities had their recognition revoked by the university, but their national organizations have not revoked their charters, allowing the chapters to operate independently and free of regulation.

“This would now hold organizations who do not step up and try to prevent this kind of activity from happening to be accountable for their actions,” Corman said.

Institutional hazing similarly would hold accountable colleges, universities and other institutions that knowingly or recklessly allow hazing or aggravated hazing to occur. They would be subject to fines ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 per offense, depending on whether the incident was hazing or aggravated hazing.

The legislation includes a safe harbor clause for student who call for emergency help for an individual who has been hazed. Similar to the state’s drug overdose immunity law, the person who calls for help and waits with the victim for emergency personnel to arrive would be immune from prosecution for hazing and underage drinking.

Barron said he believes the safe harbor rule would have made a difference in Piazza’s case. He added that the university would develop a matching provision for the student code of conduct, as also exists in drug and alcohol overdose cases.

Under the proposed law, institutions also are required to maintain a public report of hazing violations — including when the organization was charged, a description of the incident, findings and sanctions. As with the current law, institutions also are required to have anti-hazing policies and sanctions.

“With this cause the Piazzas have started we’ve been able to have the most comprehensive rewrite of the hazing law not only in Pennsylvania’s history but around the country,” Corman said.

Jim Piazza said he hopes the legislature expedites passage of the bill. Corman said he believes it will move through quickly and that it has the support of Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, and other colleges and universities along with Penn State.

Corman became emotional as he credited the Piazzas for their efforts.

“We’re here today because of the courage of Jim and Evelyn Piazza,” he said. “As a parent, if it were me, I probably would have crawled into my bed, pulled up the covers and stayed there. But because of their courage, we are here to make sure this never happens again. I’m honored they’ve allowed me to be their instrument in this cause.”

In thanking Corman along with family and friends, Jim Piazza also thanked Barron. It was a notable moment, as the Piazzas have been frequently and publicly critical of the university’s immediate response after their son’s death as well as in suggesting that the university could be more aggressive in their efforts to reform Greek life.

“I would like to thank President Eric Barron of Penn State for his unwavering support of this bill,” Jim Piazza said. “Not only is it both noteworthy and important, it demonstrates his commitment to making important change at Penn State, in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.”

Barron said he and the Piazzas have had a number of personal conversations as they have worked together on the effort.

“I’m very thankful that we have sat down together,” Barron said. “We’ve talked about issues. We’ve talked about what they would like to see happen and I talk about what I can do to be supportive. They have many, many good ideas. There are some things that are more difficult for us to handle than others but we spend a lot of time sharing what we’re doing, what we should do, what’s hard to do. It’s been an extremely important part of the evolution of this process.”

Like Corman and Piazza, Barron believes the new law will set an example for the rest of the country.

“This is a very strong bill,” he said. “I believe that it will make a national model. I hope as many states take this step as possible. Look at how many deaths we’ve had across the nation. We have an epidemic on our hands here. This is one strong step.”

The proposed law echoes many aspects of a recommendation by a Centre County Grand Jury, which, after its criminal investigation yielded initial criminal charges in the case, launched an inquiry into fraternity and sorority life at Penn State. The grand jury’s final report included among its recommendations “Tim’s Law” which proposed a multi-tier system for grading hazing offenses.

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