Jim Piazza can’t look at photos of his son Tim, who died more than a year ago from injuries suffered during a Penn State fraternity pledge party.
He can’t go into Tim’s room. His wife Evelyn can’t bring herself to wash Tim’s clothes piled in his hamper.
The loss of Tim still is too painful.
On Friday, the Piazzas met with parents of 16 other college students who died in tragically similar circumstances across the country. Also attending was Rich Braham, whose son Marquise Braham died by suicide in 2014 after enduring horrific hazing.
The groundbreaking conference in Greenville, South Carolinarepresents the first time a large group of parents have banded together to develop an action plan against hazing. The conference at a Hampton Inn will continue through Saturday.
“That was a very powerful feeling to be with other parents who have gone through the same thing,” Jim Piazza told PennLive after the first day of the event. “Almost all of the stories sounded very similar. When people talked about their children, they were all very similar in personality.
“Our kids were really good kids and they just trusted people,” Piazza said. They trusted people a bit too much. They thought other individuals had their back and they didn’t.”
Tim Piazza, 19, died Feb 4, 2017, two days after he fell down the stairs inside the Beta Theta Pi house after being served 18 drinks in 82 minutes. No one called for help for nearly 12 hours. Fraternity brothers then deleted potentially incriminating group text messages, according to prosecutors, and shared concerns about not wanting to get in trouble.
The situation bore eerie similarities to the Nov. 3 death of Andrew Coffey after attending a pledge party for Pi Kappa Phi at Florida State University. He was reportedly given a bottle of bourbon by his “big brother,” which he consumed before passing out on a couch while others continued to play pool.
The next morning, Coffey had no pulse. A fellow pledge called and sent text messages to five fraternity members before calling 911, according to a grand jury presentment.
The 20-year-old Coffey had a blood alcohol level of .447 at the time of his autopsy.
More than half of the fraternity members later refused to be interviewed by police, including seven out of nine members of the executive council, according to the Sun Sentinel.
The fact that many hazing deaths include the same disturbing elements is not lost on Jim Piazza. Many cases involve delays in seeking medical attention and a focus not on the victim, but instead, on self-preservation.
“There is a common pattern in criminal behavior,” Piazza said. “You can take just about any crime and they’re worried about being caught, there’s some sort of cover-up. I don’t think there’s anything unique with what you’re seeing related to hazing.”
That’s why many parents of victims believe there needs to be stiffer penalties against hazing, which in many states including Pennsylvania is considered a misdemeanor.
Then prosecutors, judges and juries need to use those stiffer penalties, Piazza said.
“If we see that, we’ll see changes,” he said.
The parents focused mostly on introductions and bonding Friday, the first day of the conference. They also shared individual efforts they had tried so far in their fight to stop hazing.
Some parents created anti-hazing videos or offered educational classes at universities. Piazza said he set up a meeting with the head of the North American Interfraternity Conference on March 15 to jumpstart introductions to officials who run the national fraternities.
As part of their strategy, Piazza and other parents plan to take their case for changing Greek culture directly to the national fraternities with the worst hazing records and to the country’s largest universities
The parents will offer to help them develop better policies, procedures, rules and enforcement, Piazza said.
Parents also want to bring anti-hazing education into secondary schools, to start educating kids at younger ages about resisting dangerous peer pressure.
Hank Nuwer, an author and anti-hazing activist who created the first clearinghouse to track hazing deaths, said parents in the “Parents United to Stop Hazing” organization are determined to make PUSH as powerful against hazing as the group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers was against driving while intoxicated.
“These parents, when they lose a child, are manipulated by schools, fraternities, administrators and even law enforcement,” Nuwer said. “No longer can they be manipulated. They asserted power and they feel empowered.”
Piazza said the effort against hazing has reached a tipping point.
“My hope is collectively, as a group, we can start chipping away,” he said. “This is a complex problem that’s not going to be fixed overnight. But we believe it can be fixed.”