Lawsuits claim Penn State has failed to adequately address problems at fraternities
In wake of pledge death, university says it has a strong student misconduct policy
From the outside, Penn State’s fraternities are a captivating sight. Regal 19th-century mansions line a street aptly nicknamed “Frat Row,” just south of a picturesque campus nestled in a valley.
But when the mansion doors open, the allure subsides. The crown molding and grand staircases can’t hide the wear and tear of nights of parties. A glossy coat of spilled beer, mud and sweat often overtake the character of that old hardwood floor.
Some who have pledged allegiance inside these walls have horror stories.
Two lawsuits against Penn State allege that university officials failed to respond appropriately to persistent problems with hazing and alcohol use at its fraternities. The plaintiffs claimed pledges were forced to drink excessive and dangerous amounts of alcohol. One alleges fraternity brothers burned pledges with hot wax, held a gun to their heads, and forced them to kill animals. And that a Penn State employee – a resident assistant – knew about it, but didn’t report it.
In one case, a member of the fraternity documented the hazing and reported it to the school, but he says he was ignored.
It wasn’t until February of this year, after 19-year-old Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza died, that Penn State halted pledging and enacted restrictions on alcohol consumption and social functions within its Greek community.
And after details of Piazza’s death emerged on Friday from a 1,000-count indictment against 18 fraternity members – including eight on charges of involuntary manslaughter – a grand jury has indicated it will take a look at the bigger picture: Was Penn State complicit in enabling a culture where there was no accountability?
The grand jury report said conduct in a “permissive atmosphere fostered by the Pennsylvania State University Interfraternity Council” led to Piazza’s death. It goes on to say that the “grand jury has chosen to develop a full report concerning the conduct of the Pennsylvania State University Interfraternity Council and, perhaps, the conduct of the university itself.”
Penn State is just now exiting the tunnel of one of the darkest university scandals in history – the conviction of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for molesting young boys for decades, and three school officials for failing to report his crimes.
The news hit the university hard, and critics accused school administrators of having a culture of silence. Penn State, after former President Graham Spanier was convicted of one misdemeanor charge, endangering the welfare of a child, in the Sandusky case, said, “… while we cannot undo the past, we have rededicated ourselves and our university to act always with the highest integrity, in affirming the shared values of our community.”
Less than two months later, Penn State faces more allegations that administrators failed to protect young people in their charge – this time, inside the walls of its fraternities.
Efforts to speak with officials about hazing- and alcohol-related problems have been declined, but Penn State provided written responses, saying in part, “Numerous recent reports demonstrate that regardless of size or location, hazing, binge drinking and related sexual assault issues are occurring throughout the country.”
Penn State says it has strong misconduct policy
At a press conference Friday, university President Eric Barron called the grand jury’s findings “heartwrenching and incomprehensible.” He said Penn State “has one of the most aggressive student misconduct policies in the country and its off-campus policy pertaining to misconduct remains the most vigorous in the Big 10.”
“It should not go without saying that hazing and dangerous drinking are not permitted by the university and the university takes appropriate actions to education students about these issues and hold them accountable whenever it learns of such wrongdoing,” Barron said.
“All indicators suggest that Beta Theta Pi was a model fraternity,” he said. “It is clear, however, that this was no model fraternity.”
According to Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity, its Penn State chapter was previously disciplined twice. The first time, in 2009, the chapter was suspended for a year after it was found to be serving alcohol to minors. When it came back, it was a dry house. But in 2013, it was found in violation of the alcohol-free housing policy put in place by the national chapter.
Penn State told CNN that the university is aware of 170 chapter conduct cases since the spring of 2015. “Wherever appropriate the University separately pursues student misconduct proceedings involving individuals.”
According to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, Penn State has used a private security company to assist in monitoring fraternity social activities for the past several years.
’Drinking until you were vomiting’
Two years ago, in March 2015, Barron promised to take a hard look at Greek life at Penn State.
It came after then-freshman James Vivenzio described hazing he says he endured at Kappa Delta Rho fraternity.
“Drinking until you were vomiting, they were shoving alcohol down your throat all the time,” Vivenzio told CNN. Pledges would have to stand around a trash can, he alleged, drink until they vomited, and then pass the bottle. Later, he said, they’d have “to do push-ups, sit-ups in your own vomit.”
Vivenzio describes being forced, along with his pledge class, to gather ingredients for, and then drink, a mixture of “the most disgusting things you can think of.”
“Urine, vomit, and kind of anything they could find. Just smelling it would make you throw up. It was pretty bad,” he said.
Vivenzio says he reported being hazed to Penn State twice before going to the police and filling a civil lawsuit.
First, he says, he tried to report it anonymously in the fall of 2013 while he was still a pledge through the hotline that Penn State told freshmen about during their orientation.
No changes were made, he said, so Vivenzio began to document everything he could: alleged beatings, a private Facebook page, the text messages to pledges that read, “destroying ur lives, dignity and removing ur f-ing souls.”
Vivenzio says, after three months, he decided he could no longer take it. He left school, went back to his parents’ home in Virginia and called Penn State to report what he had documented.
The director of the Office of Student Conduct, Danny Shaha, drove from State College, Penn State’s main campus, to the Vivenzio home. With his parents, Vivenzio sat at the kitchen table and handed Shaha a stack of documents.
“And we showed him all this and I pledged my help. I was like ‘I want this to change,’” Vivenzio said.
Vivenzio says he heard nothing from Penn State for a nearly a year. In the meantime, because the fraternity hadn’t removed Vivenzio from a private Facebook group or the group text messages, Vivenzio said he could see that hazing continued. Vivenzio said it was not uncommon to see pledges talking about being “forcefed liquor.” Or messages like “Let’s haze.”
It wasn’t until the student called police in 2015, and a private Kappa Delta Rho Facebook page made national news – because it contained pictures of seemingly unconscious naked women – that Penn State investigated and found evidence of hazing, including underage drinking.
Police told CNN their investigation closed when, in May 2015, Penn State banned the fraternity from its campus for three years and Kappa Delta Rho expelled 38 of its members from the fraternity.
Penn State officials wouldn’t agree to an interview, but in a statement to CNN the university disputed Vivenzio’s version of the story.
Penn State said it offered Vivenzio “extraordinary assistance ” but ultimately, “neither he nor his family were willing to file a complaint, provide documentation, speak with state college police or participate in pursuing the formal disciplinary process.”
Vivenzio and both of his parents insist to CNN that they did everything they could to work with police and school authorities.
No consensus among task force members
After closing Kappa Delta Rho’s chapter, Barron announced the formation of a 25-member task force, made up of community and university leaders.
“Overall, we clearly knew that we could not … things could not stay the same,” said Ron Binder, associate dean of student affairs at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford, who chaired one of the task force’s subcommittees and who used to be the national president for the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors. “The committee worked pretty hard, close to a year and a half. I thought we came up with some good recommendations.”
However, Binder and another task force member, State College borough manager Thomas Fountaine, said there were a number of dissenting reports. At times, they said, there were strong and competing opinions that couldn’t be reconciled into a consensus. Still, the subcommittees turned in their reports to Penn State, but a final report was never made public.
Penn State says it felt that members of that task force couldn’t come to a consensus in areas that were “critical to effect substantial change.”
“These issues are made more complicated by the fact that these organizations are largely self-governing and operate independently. They are private organizations on private property. So meaningful change requires the buy-in and deep involvement of the undergraduate active members,” a university spokesperson said.
Penn State enacted many of the task force’s recommendations after Piazza died, according to Binder.
National Greek group: ‘We have known about concerns’
Penn State has one of the largest Greek communities in the nation. With 8,000 students members of fraternity and sorority life, Greek life is woven into the fabric of the Nittany Lion experience.
The universities largest – and most public – annual fundraiser, a dance marathon to raise money for its own cancer research fund, is largely propped up by Greek life participants.
But for two and a half years, Penn State has not had a full-time director of Greek life organizations, says Jud Horras, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference.
“In the absence of that, these alumni, students, university and national organizations, have a hard time working together,” says Horras.
Penn State disputes this, saying “the University has never been without a director of Fraternity and Sorority Life,” adding that the Danny Shaha took over the interim position.
Horras has been critical of both the student leadership at Penn State, and how the administration has dealt with student Greek leaders.
“We have known about concerns and challenges there for quite some time. They’ve had alcohol concerns, hazing concerns, drug abuse. There have been a lot of concerns at Penn State,” says Horras, who is meeting with Barron next month. “The challenge is that the solution lies in getting the students to take ownership of the community and govern more effectively. They have to have ownership in the expectations set and their willingness to govern each other.”
After Piazza’s death, the university’s interfraternity council got into a open letter war with Barron, exchanging blame for fraternity misconduct.
Horras said that, since then, he’s been encouraged by Penn State student leaders who he says are ready to take on these problems, and said he sees “signs that more collaboration between the administration, students, and alumni is starting to happen.”
The circumstances of Piazza’s death were shocking.
He was allegedly forced to drink so much alcohol that his blood alcohol level was estimated to be about four times the legal limit in Pennsylvania. The grand jury report says Piazza was intoxicated when he fell down a flight of stairs, and that he proceeded to fall multiple times, repeatedly hitting his head, after fraternity brothers tried to revive him.
The grand jury also found, as fellow brothers stepped over him, others Googled remedies for his “cold hands” and “cold feet.” But no one called police for 12 hours.
A grand jury on Friday recommended 18 members of the fraternity be charged criminally – eight face involuntary manslaughter cases. The fraternity’s chapter president alone faces 200 counts related to hazing, aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
“The larger problem at Penn State has been an institutional and culture void, and a culture of excessiveness and permissiveness to which Penn State and any number of fraternities have turned a blind eye,” said Piazza family attorney Tom Kline. “…This death wasn’t an accident; it was an inevitability based on everything that the grand jury said.”
The governing body of Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity, where Piazza pledged, issued a statement after charges against some of its members were announced.
In part, it said, “The early findings of that investigation indicated that the behavior of several undergraduate members was in direct contradiction of the International Fraternity’s expectations and risk management policies, as well as the International Fraternity’s reputation and commitment to character development. Beta Theta Pi International Fraternity has clearly and consistently expressed its position that it does not tolerate hazing or alcohol abuse in any form by its members. The former undergraduate members were well ecducated by the International Fraternity and Penn State on these policies; however, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence as they face these charges.”
CNN has been unable to reach Beta Theta Pi’s local chapter president, or his lawyer, for comment.
One student jumped to his death
In the spring of 2014, about the same time that Vivenzio officially reported hazing to Penn State, another Penn State family was dealing with a much more devastating tragedy.
Marquise Braham, who was at Penn State Altoona on an academic scholarship, jumped from the roof of an 11-story building on Long Island. It was the day before he was to return from spring break to his fraternity Phi Sigma Kappa.
Braham had gone through brutal hazing during his fall semester as a pledge, according to his family’s lawsuit.
The suit, filed in December 2015, lays it out in detail: being forced to choose between snorting cocaine or being sodomized; stealing; gutting, skinning and killing animals; forced physical fighting that resulted in concussions; extreme sleep deprivation; guns pointed at their heads; hot wax dripped down their backs; enormous consumption of alcohol.
Braham had befriended a fellow student, a female resident assistant who was supposed to be trained in recognizing and reporting school policy violations. In text messages made part of the lawsuit, she encouraged him to stick it out.
“i feel like i’ve done so much that it can’t get any worse but it always does lol,” Braham wrote to her.
Braham returned to Penn State the next semester as a brother. The lawsuit claims he continued to struggle, forced to haze a new class of pledges.
“i’m just hanging in here haha. Hazing season just started so i’m kinda glad to go back home. Some of this shit is just hard to watch when you’re a brother,” he texted to her on March 5, 2014, according to the lawsuit.
The next day, he continued, “i just never thought i would get to the point where i needed counseling. That just isn’t me [you know] sometimes i just feel like i’m falling apart …”
She responded: “i am worried about you. I didn’t know it was this bad.” and later, “i’m worried as f**k about you.’”
On March 7, 2014, the resident assistant and another Penn State employee reported to their supervisor that they believed Braham was in a state of dangerous psychological crisis, the lawsuit says.
“But no action was taken to intervene, get Marquise immediate help, or inform Marquise’s parents of his psychological crisis, despite Marquise having signed a waiver allowing Penn State to communicate directly with his parents regarding his academic and health issues,” the family’s lawsuit says.
The same day the resident assistant notified Penn State officials of Braham’s state of mind, Braham, a devout Catholic, returned home to Uniondale and told his aunt that he needed to “confess his fraternity ‘sins,’” the lawsuit says.
He jumped to his death one week later.
When his devastated parents asked Penn State officials whether there were any warning signs – of why their seemingly happy and healthy son who was eager to help others and excited to pursue a career in physical therapy would kill himself at 18 – Penn State officials said nothing, the family attorney said.
“Penn State kept this information secret from the family, leaving them in the dark and exacerbating their suffering ever since his death,” the lawsuit says.
When the hazing became public, through a police investigation, Penn State investigated, and revoked the Phi Sigma Kappa’s license to operate on the campus for six years. Phi Sigma Kappa members denied the hazing claims.
In January 2016, the state attorney general’s office announced that a grand jury had investigated the case and returned no criminal charges. While the panel said there was evidence of fraternity-wide hazing that was “extremely dangerous and put the health and safety of all pledges at risk,” it said there was nothing to connect Braham’s suicide to his being hazed.
“Rather the evidence points to a young man who, though he had a sunny and very pleasant exterior, had been contemplating suicide for a very long time,” the grand jury said. “(this) investigation and this report should shine a light on what can happen to vulnerable 18-year-olds when they go off to college.”
Penn State campus police say they will notify families of student emergencies, including times when they “experience other personal emergencies.”
A Penn State spokesman told CNN the university cannot comment on legal matters, but said the policy related to emergencies takes student privacy into account.
“We balance the critical nature/seriousness of the situation with the student’s privacy rights as we make the decision to contact parents, or not.”
Braham’s civil lawsuit is still being litigated and Penn State has made a motion to have the case dismissed.
Penn State said that after his death, “processes and practices for fraternity and sorority life on campuses were reviewed.”
’I saw something coming’
There is no national database of fraternity-related deaths and incidents, so it’s hard to know how widespread the problems like those at Penn State are.
Horras, the North-American Interfraternity Conference president, said he is working with a new company to begin tracking fraternity misconduct across the country. Federal privacy laws often get in the way of transparency, Horras said.
Vivenzio claims Penn State’s representation of Greek Life is deceptive. He is suing the university for alleged fraud.
The website says there are many myths about Greek communities, but “the reality is that men and women in fraternities and sororities are committed to their academics, volunteer their time in the community, develop and strengthen their leadership skills…”
A Q&A on hazing says the school has a zero-tolerance policy.
“Those statements were knowingly false,” said Vivenzio’s attorney, Aaron Freiwald. “James and others relied on those statements to his detriment. Penn State knew hazing was taking place and took a ‘Well, that’s what goes on here’ kind of attitude, so when they said there was zero tolerance for hazing, that was a false statement and (Vivenzio) says he wouldn’t have rushed if he’d known about hazing.”
Braham family attorney Doug Fierberg has sued over this issue in the past and won against several universities, forcing them to post all of their incidents online. Other schools have followed voluntarily. Penn State is not among them.
Penn State would not make any of its officials available for an interview with CNN, either before or after Piazza’s death.
It did respond in writing about the Vivenzio and Braham lawsuits, saying that “after both instances of fraternity misconduct were reported to the University, Penn State took the strongest action available. In addition to student misconduct proceedings, it withdrew recognition of the fraternities involved – which in essence shuts them down.”
When Vivenzio heard about Piazza’s death, he said he broke down and cried.
“I don’t understand why it was just kind of put to the side and not taken seriously,” he said. “I saw something coming, and I really wish Penn State would have listened. Maybe it could have saved a life.”
CNN’s Chris Welch contributed to this report.