The death of Pennsylvania State University student Timothy Piazza contained all the elements to fuel national outrage.
He was a young, affable Beta Theta Pi pledge, a former high school football player who taught the game to students with special needs. At a fraternity party in February, after rounds of heavy drinking, Piazza tumbled 15 feet down a flight of stairs. Though Piazza was clearly injured, shaking violently, other Beta Theta Pi members ignored his need for medical care, instead trying to wake him by splashing liquid on his face and striking him. He fell multiple times that night, striking his head on a hardwood floor and an iron railing, and bled internally for hours before he died two days later.
The fraternity members did not call 911 until the next morning.
An aggressive and wide response came in the months following, with the university president forever banning the fraternity from campus, postponing rush and introducing hard restrictions on Greek events. The Centre County district attorney jumped on the case, levying charges against 18 people.
Piazza’s story bears some similarities to that of Chuck Stenzel, almost 40 years ago. Stenzel, 20, a fraternity prospect at Alfred University, died in 1978 after being locked in a trunk and forced to drink multiple bottles of alcohol.
The difference: a striking, lukewarm response from Alfred officials, who at the time classified Stenzel’s death in public statements as an unfortunate alcohol overdose. No one faced criminal charges.
Experts say that public patience for hazing has run thin, and as perception changes, so too will state laws that enable prosecutors to more aggressively pursue charges — an easy win for them.
Of the 18 prosecuted in Piazza’s death, eight were charged with involuntary manslaughter, an unusual number of federal counts in one of the biggest prosecutions of hazing in history.
Recently, too, four men initially charged with murder in the 2013 hazing death of a student at Baruch College struck a deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
“I don’t see a reduction yet. What’s going to bring a reduction is what’s happening here, and that’s a public outcry. I haven’t seen a public outcry quite like this,” Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College who has written broadly about hazing, said of Piazza’s case.
Decades ago, hazing was practiced “in the open” on campuses, Nuwer said, but has since retreated “behind closed doors.” Particularly after Piazza’s death, fewer videos, which could be used as evidence in court proceedings, might emerge of some of these cruel tactics, he said. This takeaway by the public differs from the lesson some fraternities have learned, which is hide the evidence rather than halt hazing, Nuwer said.
With the ubiquity of mobile social media platforms, like Snapchat, comes the likelihood that such episodes will be documented, Nuwer said.
A lawyer for Piazza’s family has said surveillance footage serves as a blessing for prosecutors, who can easily disprove some of the fraternity brothers’ initial recount of events and show they did not assist Piazza for hours.
After details of the state’s grand jury investigation began to surface earlier this month, Penn State President Eric Barron released a statement calling the other students’ treatment of Piazza “inhumane.”
In the statement, he highlighted measures the university has enacted limiting alcohol at Greek events, among them downsizing the number of socials at which the chapters could serve alcohol from 45 to 10 per semester. Alcohol had already been barred from all Greek gatherings for the remainder of the academic year.
Fraternity and sorority and recruitment in the coming academic year has also been postponed from the fall to the spring.