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Last year four fraternity pledges died in what are alleged to have been hazing-related incidents. The young men, aged 18 to 20, all died after drinking heavily at fraternity events — in one case, a ritual named “Bible study.” But while the number of hazing deaths in 2017 was high, it was far from unprecedented. Similar numbers were recorded in 2008, 2012, and 2014.
What makes last year’s hazing deaths unusual, though, is how much publicity they have attracted. That’s particularly true of the horrific death of Timothy Piazza, a Pennsylvania State University sophomore who was a pledge at Beta Theta Pi and whose final hours were captured by the fraternity house’s security cameras and brothers’ Snapchat posts. Intense media attention seems likely to continue as criminal and civil trials resulting from these deaths work their way through the courts.
The big question now is: Will any of this prompt real change? Penn State and other universities where students died — Florida State, Louisiana State, and Texas State — responded to their deaths by imposing a variety of suspensions and new rules on fraternities. But if the usual pattern repeats itself, the institutions will relax their vigils after a few incident-free semesters, and fraternities will slip back into holding alcohol-soaked parties and hazing their pledges. Already Florida State, saying that students are working to “shift the campus culture in the right direction,” has lifted some restrictions on fraternity recruiting.
Hank J. Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College who has written about hazing since 1978, says it’s hard now to imagine ever eradicating the practice, which he says combines the appeal of belonging to an elitist organization with the lure of the forbidden and aspects of cultlike group-think. If you include band, sports-team, and other hazings, there has been at least one death every year since 1961 in American high schools and colleges, he says.
Can Hazing Be Stopped?
- The horrific death last year of a Penn State fraternity pledge, captured on security cameras and social media, put hazing in the spotlight — again. But it’s uncertain whether real change will come about as a result.
- Some institutions, including Penn State, have cracked down on fraternities with new rules and suspensions. But Penn State’s president said in an open letter to the community that he worried that bad behavior would simply go underground.
- As criminal and civil trials resulting from recent hazing-related deaths work their way through the courts, some parents of victims have joined a crusade to end hazing. Critics of fraternity behavior say parents often perpetuate the problem, by encouraging partying and drinking excessively themselves at Greek-sponsored events for parents.
Hazing dates to the 19th century, Nuwer notes, and by the early 20th, hazing of all of an institution’s freshmen and sophomores was not uncommon. But when he was a student at Buffalo State College in the 1960s, he says, even fraternity hazing was mild by today’s standards: “For us it was scavenger hunts and stealing something from a rival fraternity. The drinking wasn’t a part of it.”Hazing that is potentially deadly is far more common today, he says. “It’s only a fraction of the cases that come to our attention, when there’s a serious injury, or a parent intervenes, or by chance campus police or an administrator inspect and catch something. Students find that if you lie and put on the aura of respectability, you can do what you want behind closed doors.” (Some sororitiesalso haze new members, but deaths are vanishingly rare.)
An aura of respectability was exactly what the Beta Theta Pi brothers at Penn State had adopted, according to a long and decidedly pessimistic April letter to the university community written by Penn State’s president, Eric J. Barron. He noted that the fraternity had a “no alcohol” policy, live-in oversight, and video surveillance, and gave no outward signs of hosting large parties. But, the letter stated, “Its ‘model’ behavior was a charade.”
After Piazza’s death, Penn State announced a long list of new requirements and revoked its recognition of Beta Theta Pi, but Barron wrote that he was troubled by signs that fraternities had no intention of reforming. He cited a recent letter from an Interfraternity Council leader to fraternity chapters that used “a derogatory term to describe women,” and encouraged members to serve alcohol upstairs where it wouldn’t be found during a spot-check. “If new rules can just be ignored, or behavior just goes underground, and if there is no willingness to recognize the adverse impact of excessive drinking, hazing, and sexual assault, then is there any hope?”
The Centre County prosecutor who convened a grand jury to investigate Piazza’s death, Stacy Parks Miller, predicted at a December news conference that Penn State’s reform attempts would fail. “It’s not aggressive enough,” said Parks Miller, who left office at the end of last year after losing a bid for re-election. “If it takes eliminating these dens of depravity that won’t reform their ways, then do it,” she said. “No fraternity’s existence is worth more than the life of Tim Piazza.”
Piazza, an engineering major from New Jersey, fell down a flight of stairs in the Beta Theta Pi house after a drinking ritual, “the Gauntlet,” in which he was given 18 drinks in an hour and a half. The details are laid out in the 236-page grand-jury report, but the most astonishing point is that fraternity brothers are repeatedly seen on security-camera footage horsing around Piazza as he lay unconscious for hours with a fractured skull and a shattered spleen. They did not seek help for him until the next morning.Hazing is illegal in Pennsylvania, and prosecutors have filed a variety of hazing- and alcohol-related charges against some two dozen Beta Theta Pi brothers. Meanwhile Piazza’s parents, Evelyn and James Piazza, have become high-profile critics of hazing, and of universities that tolerate it. They have been joined in their crusade by the parents of Maxwell Gruver, who died after allegedly taking part in the “Bible study” drinking game at the Phi Delta Theta chapter at Louisiana State. Charges have been filed in that case, too, as well as in the death of Andrew Coffey at Florida State. It’s unclear so far whether anyone will be charged in the death of Matthew Ellis at Texas State in November.
Fraternities’ supporters regularly maintain that the organizations are, as one college’s website says, a “gateway to advance involvement and social development,” and that joining “requires living to a higher standard as a college student.” But the Centre County grand jury found otherwise. “Whatever values Greek life previously held dear, the Greek life the grand jury saw focuses mainly on excessive drinking and social debauchery.”Indeed, when an alumnus “invested millions of dollars of his money to restore the Beta Theta Pi house in 2008, emails reviewed by the grand jury revealed that brothers and even their parents were more concerned about their freedom to party than embracing the original principles of the fraternity to which they pledged their loyalty.”
Nuwer, the professor who studies hazing, says alumni and parents can become “enablers” who promote fraternity culture and pay for alcohol. Indeed, the Penn State president’s open letter stated that some parents were “visibly intoxicated” at a fraternity event held during parents’ weekend. “We attack the undergraduates,” Nuwer says, “but the alumni and the parents skate.” Nuwer also asks when it became OK “for faculty to abdicate their interest and participation in Greek life?” That, too, he says, is part of the problem.
A handful of top-tier liberal-arts college have succeeded in shuttering fraternities — Amherst, Bowdoin, Colby, Middlebury, and Williams — as have a few other institutions, such as Alfred University, which closed its fraternities in 2002 after the hazing death of a Zeta Beta Tau pledge, Benjamin Klein. But Franklin & Marshall College (this writer’s alma mater) attempted to derecognize fraternities in the 1980s and succeeded chiefly in provoking years of acrimony. The administration rerecognized fraternities two decades later.
The grand-jury report on Timothy Piazza’s death does not go as far as calling for an end to the fraternity system, but it makes a number of recommendations, including the creation of a detailed bill of rights for pledges, “actual zero tolerance” for students who violate hazing prohibitions, and a severe crackdown on alcohol use.
Nuwer, who is 71, remains skeptical that hazing can be curtailed. But, he says, he also never expected years ago that drunk driving and date rape would become such hot-button issues.
“The Tim Piazza case has caused so much attention, with articulate parents, with video being present, and a very contentious criminal case coming. Those things could lead to a paradigm shift that might shame hazers,” he says. That, in turn, could bring hazing to an end, he says — or simply drive it farther underground.