Across America this fall, millions of undergraduates will walk onto college campuses filled with excitement and promise. They’re eager to forge new friendships and create lifelong memories. Greek life attracts many of those students. Despite recent controversies including hazing, binge drinking and deaths, fraternities are more popular than ever.
“Each year, about 100,000 young men choose to be initiated into chapters nationwide. Altogether, there are almost 400,000 men in fraternities and that’s up 50 percent over the past decade,” according to John Hechinger, author of “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.” One fraternity’s promotional video describes the allure as, “Surrounding you with the best and brightest men on campus. Men who will become the best men at your wedding, pallbearers at your funeral and everything in between.”
In 2017, Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza accepted his top choice fraternity’s offer to join their brotherhood. The details of his bid acceptance night and subsequent death are well documented in a 65-page grand jury report and video recordings from more than 12 high-quality cameras positioned all around the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.
In a building that was supposed to be alcohol-free, Piazza consumed 18 drinks in 82 minutes. After Tim fell down a flight of stairs, brothers waited more than 12 hours before calling 911. Just 29 hours after walking into the fraternity house, the 19-year-old died from traumatic brain injury, according to court records and testimony.
“They killed him. They fed him lethal doses of alcohol, and they killed him. And then they treated him like roadkill, like a rag doll,” said Tim’s father, Jim Piazza.
Philip Masorti, who represents the first former fraternity brother to plead guilty to counts of hazing and unlawful acts involving liquor, said the situation isn’t so black and white.
“These kids weren’t monsters. They used extremely poor judgment … especially later in the night by refusing or failing to provide medical assistance,” countered Masorti.
In the weeks after Tim’s death, the Beta Theta Pi chapter was shuttered by its national fraternity and permanently banned by Penn State. A CNN Special Report delves into the Piazza case, the sweeping changes triggered in Happy Valley and the nationwide problem of fraternity hazing. Watch “A Deadly Haze: Inside the Fraternity Crisis” Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
A total of 26 former Beta Theta Pi brothers have been criminally charged as a result of Piazza’s death. It’s a sprawling case with counts ranging from hazing to tampering with evidence to reckless endangerment. So far, there have been two guilty pleas for hazing and unlawful acts involving alcohol.
“Hopefully others will take responsibility for their actions in the killing of our son,” said Tim’s mother, Evelyn Piazza. As another preliminary hearing grinds on this week, the first jury trial is scheduled to begin on February 6 – just two days after the two-year anniversary of Tim’s death.
“This case, frankly, as tragic as it is, this case is grossly overcharged,” according to defense lawyer William J. Brennan. His client Joseph Ems is the second brother to plead guilty in the case. It’s a sentiment echoed by several of the former Beta brothers’ legal teams.
“This is an awful tragedy … but unfortunately, not every tragedy should result in serious criminal charges,” said defense attorney Theodore Simon.
“In many ways, Timothy Piazza’s death is a classic case of hazing that I’ve seen year after year. You have a young man asked to drink until he loses consciousness,” says Hechinger, who has reported on fraternities and education for years. According to Penn State, Greek members report excessive drinking four times higher than the average student.
“If you ran a bar where your patrons were constantly being hospitalized for alcohol, that bar would lose its liquor license absolutely,” adds Hechinger. “It’s time for the fraternities to lose their liquor license.”
Since 2005, there have been more than 77 fraternity-related deaths across the country. But hazing risks spill beyond fraternity row. There has been at least one hazing death each year since 1970, according to Hank Nuwer, author of “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives.” According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1,825 college students die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including car crashes.
While 44 states have anti-hazing laws on the books, a hazing conviction often constitutes a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $500 and zero jail time. At least 12 of those states have stiffer statutes on hazing, making it a felony if it results in death or serious injury.
The proposed Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law seeks to add Pennsylvania to that list of states with tougher penalties. The bill passed through the state’s Senate in April but awaits a vote in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.