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Anniversary of Tim Piazza’s death examined by columnist

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Excerpt:

At 19 years old — his life seemingly still before him — Timothy Piazza entered a familiar destination and the last he would live to see, a dwelling near Penn State University distinguished less by its Tudor Revival brick construction than three Greek letters.

By the time medics removed the young pledge from the Beta Theta Pi House half a day later, he was bleeding internally from injuries including a lacerated spleen and a fractured skull, his body bruised and in a stupor from alcohol nearly four times the legal limit.

His death a year ago today drew expressions of shock and anger. Perhaps none were more pointed than what then-Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said in May after announcing a grand jury report and charges against the fraternity and its members.

“There’s just nothing about this case that isn’t heartbreaking,” she said. “No one goes to college to die.”

 

In this March 23, 2015, photo, Penn State athletic trainer Tim Bream talks with quarterback Christian Hackenberg as he stretches during an NCAA college spring football practice in State College, Pa.
Sean D. Hamill
Penn State athletic trainer lived in frat house where Tim Piazza died

But death, by itself, did not make the sophomore engineering major from Lebanon, N.J., and his grieving parents a national symbol.

After all, excessive drinking, fraternity hazing or a combination of both have been snatching young campus lives for decades, despite a parade of campus crackdowns and administrator protestations that what is occurring over and again is not the norm.

Only in this case, the torment was captured and memorialized by video surveillance from inside the fraternity house, and by text messages that captured the moment-by-moment responses of young adults suddenly faced with a life-changing decision. They could get the medical help Mr. Piazza desperately needed, and in doing so, risk severe campus sanctions. Or, they could leave him as he moved for hours closer to death, arguing about the severity of his injuries and applying gruesomely amateurish techniques to help him ride out what they apparently saw at first as a rite of passage.

Further magnifying it all was that it involved Penn State, a mega brand and magnet for media attention, with a legion of devoted followers nationwide but also vocal detractors.

“It was a perfect storm,” said Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has researched and written extensively on hazing deaths.

The sight of young fraternity men in ties and jackets, moving without expression past cameras on their way to and from the courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa., made for grim theater last summer as one of the nation’s largest fraternity prosecutions inched forward. Charges were filed, the most severe dismissed, and later refiled.

A changeover in the district attorney’s office ultimately placed the case in the hands of the state attorney general.

Penn State President Eric Barron on Thursday summarized sweeping changes made over the last year, including some 14 fraternities suspended or banished, and a decision by Penn State to wrest chapter oversight away from the Interfraternity Council.

He said the school had sought to turn its community pain into action, but added, “We must do more.”

Mr. Piazza’s parents, James and Evelyn Piazza, on Friday shared their own call to action against hazing and their thoughts on a life cut short. In a statement, they recalled watching at Hershey Medical Center as their son was taken off life-support.

“He just wanted to join an organization,” they said. “How could this happen?”

The government does not track hazing incidents, though an effort in Congress would change that. For now, it falls to those like Mr. Nuwer, 71, who counts at least 42 hazing deaths in the last 10 years — nearly all involving college fraternities.

The toll has grown, even since Mr. Piazza’s death.

Mr. Nuwer said the Penn State case has brought change to a degree. Florida State, Ohio State and Ball State, among other universities, seem more inclined to answer misconduct with campuswide Greek life suspensions or social probation.

“The’re a new urgency for fraternities and sororities to prove to schools that they deserve campus recognition,” he said. “That’s been a change since Piazza’s death.”

Still, some cases are being handled with scant disclosure, something Mr. Nuwer said allows the behavior to fester. He cited the University of Pittsburgh, which placed its Greek system on probation last month and suspended its Sigma Chi chapter but was slow to release basic details about a recruiting-week event that left an underage student hospitalized for excessive drinking.

Pitt told parents by email Thursday that campus police found no evidence of “criminal hazing,” and that the student who has recovered “voluntarily drank to excess.” Mr. Nuwer said his concerns about disclosure remain.

“This secrecy is not reform, not acceptable, Pitt,” he said in a blog post Tuesday.

The tally he keeps, with photos of the deceased and news clippings, may only scratch the surface of the problem.

“I couldn’t even keep track of how many students are hospitalized, how many close calls there were, where they maybe were a drink or two away from death.”

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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