Categories
Hazing News

Powerful details on how the Penn State death house came to have cameras

The Atlantic
November 2017 Issue
https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/11/a-death-at-penn-state/540657/

*Tim Piazza fought for his life for 12 hours before his Beta Theta Pi
brothers called 911. By then, it was too late.*

By Caitlin Flanagan

At about 3 p.m. on Friday, February 3, Tim Piazza, a sophomore at Penn
State University, arrived at Hershey Medical Center by helicopter. Eighteen
hours earlier, he had been in the kind of raging good health that only
teenagers enjoy. He was a handsome, redheaded kid with a shy smile, a
hometown girlfriend, and a family who loved him very much. Now he had a
lacerated spleen, an abdomen full of blood, and multiple traumatic brain
injuries. He had fallen down a flight of stairs during a hazing event at
his fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, but the members had waited nearly 12 hours
before calling 911, relenting only when their pledge “looked fucking dead.”
Tim underwent surgery shortly after arriving at Hershey, but it was too
late. He died early the next morning.

Every year or so brings another such death, another healthy young college
man a victim of hazing at the hands of one of the nation’s storied social
fraternities
<https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/03/the-dark-power-of-fraternities/357580/>.
And with each new death, the various stakeholders perform in ways that are
so ritualized, it’s almost as though they are completing the second half of
the same hazing rite that killed the boy.

The fraternity enters a “period of reflection”; it may appoint a
“blue-ribbon panel.” It will announce reforms that look significant to
anyone outside the system, but that are essentially cosmetic. Its most
dramatic act will be to shut down the chapter, and the house will stand
empty for a time, its legend growing ever more thrilling to students who
walk past and talk of a fraternity so off the chain that it killed a guy.
In short order it will “recolonize” on the campus, and in a few years the
house will be back in business.

The president of the college or university where the tragedy occurred will
make bold statements about ensuring there is never another fraternity death
at his institution. But he knows—or will soon discover—that fraternity
executives do not serve at the pleasure of college presidents. He will be
forced into announcing his own set of limp reforms. He may “ban” the
fraternity from campus, but since the fraternity will have probably closed
the chapter already, he will be revealed as weak.

The media will feast on the story, which provides an excuse to pay an
unwarranted amount of attention to something viewers are always interested
in: the death of a relatively affluent white suburban kid. Because the
culprits are also relatively affluent white suburban kids, there is no need
to fear pandering to the racial bias that favors stories about this type of
victim. The story is ultimately about the callousness and even cruelty of
white men.

The grieving parents will appear on television. In their anger and sorrow,
they will hope to press criminal charges. Usually they will also sue the
fraternity, at which point they will discover how thoroughly these
organizations have indemnified themselves against culpability in such
deaths. The parents will try to turn their grief into meaningful purpose,
but they will discover how intractable a system they are up against, and
how draining the process of chipping away at it is. They will be worn down
by the endless civil case that forces them to relive their son’s passing
over and over. The ritual will begin to slow down, but then a brand-new
pair of parents—filled with the energy and outrage of early grief—will
emerge, and the cycle will begin again.

Tim Piazza’s case, however, has something we’ve never seen before. This
time the dead student left a final testimony, a vivid, horrifying, and
inescapable account of what happened to him and why. The house where he was
so savagely treated had been outfitted with security cameras, which
recorded his long ordeal. Put together with the texts and group chats of
the fraternity brothers as they delayed seeking medical treatment and then
cleaned up any traces of a wild party—and with the 65-page report released
by a Centre County grand jury, which recommended 1,098 criminal charges
against 18 former members and against the fraternity itself—the footage
reveals a more complete picture of certain dark realities than we have
previously had.

Once again, a student is dead and a family is shattered. And all of us are
co-authors of these grim facts, as we grant both the fraternities and their
host institutions tax-exempt status and allow them to carry on year after
year with little change. Is it time we reconsidered what we’re doing?

In 2004, a penn state alumnus from the class of 1970 named Donald Abbey
visited his old fraternity house, Beta Theta Pi. He had been a star
fullback in the early years of the Joe Paterno era, and gone on to become a
billionaire real-estate investor and builder in California who remembered
the Beta house as a central part of his college experience. But when he
visited, he was shocked—it was, he recalled, “repulsive,” and he felt
compelled to bring his experience in “repositioning properties” to bear on
220 North Burrowes Road. He would spend a total of $8.5 million on what
would be the most extensive renovation of an American fraternity house in
history.

Abbey’s taste does not run to the economic or the practical. One of the
mansions he built for himself in California, in the San Gabriel Valley, has
an underground firing range; a million-gallon, temperature-controlled trout
pond; an oak-paneled elevator; and “Venetian plaster masterpieces
throughout.” Similarly, his vision for the refurbished Beta house was like
something out of a movie about college. (Exterior: the frat where the rich
bastards live.) The bathrooms had heated floors, the two kitchens had
copper ceilings, the tables were hand-carved mahogany imported from
Colombia. At the entrances were biometric fingerprint scanners.

Abbey seems not to have considered why the house might have become so
“repulsive” in the first place. A simple trip through the archives of The
Daily Collegian might have revealed to him that the Alpha Upsilon chapter
of Beta Theta Pi was hardly the Garrick Club. This was an outfit in which a
warm day might bring the sight of a brother sitting, with his pants pulled
down, on the edge of a balcony, while a pledge stood on the ground below,
his hands raised as though to catch the other man’s feces. At the very
least, this might not have been the crowd for anything requiring a
fingerprint.

The renovations were largely complete by the winter of 2007, and almost
immediately the members began to trash the house. Abbey was justly furious,
and at some point he had at least 14 security cameras installed throughout
the public rooms, an astonishing and perhaps unprecedented step. The
cameras were in no way secret, and yet the brothers continued to engage in
a variety of forbidden acts, including hazing, in clear view of them. In
late January 2009, the national fraternity put the chapter on probation.
But the young men continued to break the rules. A few weeks later, the
chapter’s probation was converted to the more serious “interim suspension.”
Incredibly, with the pressure on and the cameras still recording, the
behavior continued. By the end of February, the chapter had been disbanded.

The public often interprets the “closing” of a fraternity as a decisive
action. In fact, it is really more of a “reopening under new management”
kind of process. The national organization grooms a new set of brothers—a
“colony”—and trains them carefully so that the bad behavior of the previous
group will not be replicated. The first few years typically go very well.
Indeed, not two years after the Penn State chapter of Beta Theta Pi
reopened in the fall of 2010, it won a Sisson Award, one of the highest
honors the national fraternity can confer. But just as typically, the
chapter reverts to its previous behavior. Alumni visit their old house and
explain how things ought to be done; private Facebook groups and GroupMe
chats are initiated among brothers of different chapters, and information
about secret hazing rituals is exchanged. This time, when the brothers of
the newly reconstituted Beta chapter reverted to type and started hazing,
the national organization did not intervene.

I wanted to learn more about the cameras, and also about something called
the “Shep Test,” so in June I called the North-American Interfraternity
Conference, the trade association for social fraternities, which is located
in Carmel, Indiana. I asked to schedule an interview with the CEO, Jud
Horras, who was also a Beta, a former assistant secretary of the
fraternity’s national organization, and someone who had been intimately
involved in the disbanding and recolonization of the Penn State chapter.

In 1998, a year after Tim Piazza was born, Beta Theta Pi launched something
it called Men of Principle, intended to be a “culture-reversing
initiative.” What culture was it seeking to reverse? This was best answered
in the four planks of the campaign. The first was administrative: create “a
five-person trained and active advisory team.” The other three were the
crux of the matter: commit “to a 100% hazing-free pledge program,”
institute “alcohol-free recruitment,” and eliminate the “Shep Test,” which
it described as “the rogue National Test.”

The last one caught my attention, so I Googled around to find out what it
was. Most fraternity secrets—their handshakes and members’ manuals and
rituals—have gone the way of everything else in the time of the internet,
and even those customs that members want to hide aren’t too hard to track
down. But there really wasn’t anything at all about the Shep Test—except
for this, from the national Beta organization:

Some chapters conduct the “Shep Test.” If Francis W. Shepardson, Denison
1882, one of the greatest leaders in our great and good fraternity knew
that this practice was named after him he would be disgraced. This act is
in direct violation of our third principle and second and third
obligations. It contradicts everything Beta Theta Pi stands for.

It seemed to me—based on the fact that I could find nothing else about
it—that the Shep Test had truly been eliminated. Or so I thought, until I
read the grand jury’s presentment of the Piazza case
<http://onwardstate.com/2017/05/05/document-full-grand-jury-presentment-in-beta-theta-pi-case/>.
Text messages from members’ cellphones had been entered into evidence, and
included this exchange between two brothers at the time of the fall 2016
initiation:

casey: We were setting up
torrye: Setting what up?
casey: Like the shep test and the fake branding
torrye: Ohh
casey: I in charge of administering the shep test
torrye: What happens first
casey: Fake branding

And from the next night:

casey: It starting … We have them wait in the boiler room after the shep
test until we set up paddling

As people have since explained it to me, the Shep Test itself is little
more than a quiz about Beta Theta Pi history, but it’s one part of a night
of mind games and physical punishments. A former Beta told me that pledges
were held down on a table as a red-hot poker was brought close to their
bare feet and they were told they were going to be branded. With
pillowcases over their heads, they were paddled, leaving bruises and, on at
least one occasion, breaking the skin. They were forced to eat and drink
disgusting things, denied sleep, and terrorized in a variety of other ways.

Jud Horras called me back and proposed something surprising: He would fly
to Los Angeles for a day to meet with me in the lobby of an airport hotel.
I said it was a pity to come all that way and not see the beach, so I would
pick him up and take him to breakfast at Hermosa Beach, where he couldn’t
shake me if my questions got too difficult. He was coming out to show that
he had nothing to hide, but I knew he was not prepared for the hardest
question I had for him, which I would return to over and over again: Why
hadn’t Beta Theta Pi taken the simple, obvious steps that would have saved
Tim Piazza’s life?

Jud Horras is a young man with a wife and a small son and daughter, and if
Tim Piazza were alive and well—if he’d gone home to his apartment that
night plastered but with a story to tell—I would have fully enjoyed my time
with him. He grew up in Ames, Iowa, and spent summers working on a
farm—rare for fraternity members, who are more often suburban kids of
relative affluence. His parents divorced, and he lived with his father and
brother; by his own estimation, he “made mistakes” in high school. When he
began at Iowa State, he was a lost young man, arrogant and insecure. But
Beta Theta Pi turned his life around. He learned—via, of all things, a
college fraternity—how to exert self-control. Mentors—among them Senator
Richard Lugar, a fellow Beta, who brought him to Washington as an intern
the summer before his senior year—took him under their wing, and Horras’s
gratitude to these men is immense. He loves his fraternity the way some men
love their church or their country.*
<https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/11/a-death-at-penn-state/540657/#Correx>

Horras was eager to walk me through a list of talking points that he had
written on a yellow legal pad during his flight. He wanted me to understand
that changes were coming to the fraternity industry, that the wild drinking
could not go on indefinitely. In many regards, our conversation was like
other such conversations I’ve had with fraternity executives over the
years. He was willing to acknowledge problems in the fraternity, but not to
connect certain of its customs to any particular death. At the national
level, all fraternities vehemently prohibit hazing, and spend tremendous
energy and money trying to combat it. But according to the most
comprehensive study of college hazing, published in 2008 by a University of
Maine professor named Elizabeth Allan, a full 80 percent of fraternity
members report being hazed. It’s not an aberration; it’s the norm.

I asked Horras why no one at Beta Theta Pi had done anything about all the
bad behavior those cameras must have recorded over the years since the
reopening of the chapter. He said that no one could be expected to watch
every single minute of film. He said that at some point, you have to trust
young men to make the right decisions. What Beta Theta Pi had done for him
as a young man, he suggested, was allow him to make some poor decisions
until he started to turn around and become the man he wanted to be. Giving
members the freedom to do that was part of what the fraternity was about.
If they screwed up and got caught—well, that was on them. As for the death
of Tim Piazza, while it constituted “a tragedy for him and his family,” it
would provide the industry with the impetus needed to make some necessary
reforms. In fact, his death was a “golden opportunity.”

Then I asked Horras about the Shep Test, and why it endured, despite the
effort that had gone into eradicating it. He interrupted me: “Wait a
minute. That test doesn’t happen anymore. We have testimonials instead,
where pledges can—”

“But it’s in the presentment
<http://onwardstate.com/2017/05/05/document-full-grand-jury-presentment-in-beta-theta-pi-case/>,”
I said, and he looked at me, baffled. “One kid asks where the pledges were,
and the other one says they’re waiting in the boiler room after the Shep
Test.”

It was clear in that moment—and as he affirmed in a later email—that Horras
hadn’t read the presentment very closely.

In my notebook, I wrote:

Long pause
Long pause—
Long pause

Finally he said, with consummate feeling, “I’m fucking mad that that stuff
is going on.”

And then I realized why Horras was able to see the torture and death of a
19-year-old kid as a golden opportunity: He didn’t really know that much
about it. I started to ask him another question, but for a few moments he
seemed lost.

“Am I just fighting for a bunch of idiots?” he asked.

I visited Jim and Evelyn Piazza on a lush New Jersey evening in July, when
a summer rain was falling on the wide lawns and large houses of their
neighborhood in Hunterdon County, one of the wealthiest areas in the United
States.

Jim and Evelyn, who are both accountants, had been at work. Jim is tall and
balding and was still dressed for the office, in shirtsleeves and trousers.
Evelyn, who is petite and has long, ringleted hair—a lighter shade of red
than Tim’s—was in shorts and a T?shirt. Their house, where Tim had grown up
since the age of six months, was silent and immaculate. We sat around their
kitchen table with bottles of cold water and talked.

A fraternity death is, in some ways, like any other traumatic death of a
young person. There is the horrifying telephone call, the race to the
hospital, the stunned inability to comprehend basic information. (During
cellphone calls on the two-hour drive, the doctor kept telling Evelyn that
her son was “a very sick boy.”) But a fraternity death also brings multiple
other levels of shock: The young person was killed because of something his
friends did to him; his own university quickly backs away from any
responsibility for his death; his parents become pariahs to the other
members’ parents as they seek justice for their lost son.

In an effort to learn more about fraternities, the Piazzas— who had not
taken part in Greek life when they were college students—had attended an
information session while at a Penn State parents’ weekend in the fall of
2014 for their older son, Mike, who was then a freshman. Evelyn recalled
that a university official told the crowd of parents that there was no
hazing at the university. An uncomfortable silence followed, until one by
one, parents informed the man that their sons were currently being hazed.

When I tried to confirm this incident with Penn State, the university
denied, in a series of baffling phone calls and emails, that it could have
happened. “We don’t doubt the Piazzas’ sincerity,” one of the exchanges
begins, before heaping doubt on their assertion. I brought up all of this
at the Piazzas’ table.

“We got a letter from another parent who was there,” Jim said. “He
remembered it just the way we did.” I now have a copy of that letter, and
have spoken with the parent who wrote it; the account verifies everything
the Piazzas remember and identifies the man who made the remarks as the
university’s then-head of Greek life, Roy Baker.

This is what the past nine months have been like for the Piazzas as they
try to get justice for their son: simple requests for information and
action on their part, the strangled responses of a massive, inelegant, and
transparently self-protecting bureaucracy in reply. When Jim Piazza met
with Penn State President Eric Barron a week after Tim’s death, he slid the
program from his son’s funeral across the desk: “Since no one had the time
to come,” he said.

The Piazzas are still easily unraveled by memories of their son. When I
asked whether a spare car in the driveway had been Tim’s, Jim said yes and
then suddenly struggled for composure; he had driven it back to the house
after Tim’s death. Evelyn told me about a time, not long before Tim died,
when the two of them were alone in the house at dinnertime, and he
suggested that they go to a restaurant. They did, and they had a typically
fun time together; when the check came, Tim reached over and picked it up.
“I thought he was kidding around,” Evelyn told me. “But he said, ‘I think I
can afford to take my mother out to dinner.’ ”

The Piazzas and I talked for close to an hour. As they walked me out, I
thought of the Catholic funeral that Evelyn had so carefully planned for
her son, and the grace with which both had withstood this horror.

“You must have a very strong faith,” I said, and Jim winced a little and
glanced at his wife.

“They stole my son,” she said. “And they stole my faith.”

Jim opened the front door for me. It was full night now, and the rain had
stopped. The leaves and grass were wet, and soft lights illuminated the
trees. I walked out onto the porch, and then Jim took a sudden step toward
me. I thought he was going to ask me something, or tell me one last thing.

“Be careful on the street,” he said. At my puzzled look, he explained that
there were deer in the area and that they were hard to see at night. And
then I got in my car, armed with a father’s good counsel about avoiding the
dangers that hid in an ordinary night.

When i talked with people about Tim Piazza’s death, many brought up an
earlier Penn State crisis, the Jerry Sandusky scandal, in which the
longtime assistant football coach was convicted for a decades-long practice
of sexually abusing young boys, and the university’s head coach, Joe
Paterno, was abruptly fired. Both cases gestured to a common theme: that of
dark events that had taken place on or near the campus for years, with some
kind of tacit knowledge on the part of the university. There is also the
sense that at Penn State, both the fraternities and the football team
operate as they please. To the extent that this is true, the person
responsible is Joe Paterno.

It’s hard to think of a single person with a greater influence on a modern
university than Paterno, who died in 2012. Because of his football
team—which he coached for half a century—Penn State went from an
institution best known as a regional agricultural school to a vast
university with a national reputation. He was Catholic, old-school,
elaborately respectful of players’ mothers—and eager to wrest their sons
away and turn them into men, via the time-honored, noncoddling, masculine
processes of football.

To say he was a beloved figure doesn’t begin to suggest the role he played
on campus. He was Heaney at Harvard, Chomsky at MIT. That he was not a
scholar but a football coach and yet was the final authority on almost
every aspect of Penn State life says a great deal about the institution. He
was also a proud Delta Kappa Epsilon man and a tremendous booster of the
fraternity system, and—as was typical for men of his generation—he
understood hazing to be an accepted part of Greek life.

In 2007, he gave the practice his implicit endorsement. Photographs had
surfaced of some members of the wrestling team apparently being hazed: They
were in their underwear with 40-ounce beer bottles duct-taped to their
hands. “What’d they do?” he asked during an open football practice that
week. “When I was in college, when you got in a fraternity house, they
hazed you. They made you stay up all night and played records until you
went nuts, and you woke in the morning and all of a sudden they got you
before a tribunal and question you as to whether you have the credentials
to be a fraternity brother. I didn’t even know where I was. That was
hazing. I don’t know what hazing is today.” He wasn’t upset that the
wrestlers had engaged in hazing; he was scornful of them for doing it wrong.

Looking back at the past two decades at Penn State, we see a university
grappling with its fraternity problem in ways that pitted concerned
administrators against a powerful system, and achieving little change. In
1997, five members of a fraternity showed up at University Health Services
with what the physician there strongly suspected were hazing injuries; in
the ominous phrase of the director of Health Services, the injuries had
been caused by “something that someone else was doing to them.” The
president of the university at the time, Graham Spanier (who is currently
fighting a jail sentence resulting from his role in the Sandusky scandal),
became involved. “We will not tolerate hazing at Penn State,” he said. Yet
an investigation into the fraternity resulted in its complete exoneration,
most likely because the pledges refused to report what the brothers had
done to them, which is typical. The episode, which was covered in the
student newspaper, reinforced a message that would have tragic consequences
for Tim Piazza: that seeking medical help for an injured pledge invites
scrutiny and perhaps serious trouble.

In 2004, the university initiated a program it called Greek Pride: A Return
to Glory, which was intended “to eliminate negative behavior within Greek
organizations.” Many meetings were held, but nothing much seems to have
come of them. Then, in 2009, after a freshman named Joseph Dado got so
drunk at a fraternity party that he fell down a set of concrete stairs and
died, the university’s student-run Interfraternity Council made what seemed
to be a game-changing decision. It contracted with an outside security firm
called St. Moritz. The firm would send employees to fraternity parties for
unscheduled checks to make sure that they were in compliance with various
safety policies. It was a system that should have saved Tim Piazza’s life.
Two checkers arrived minutes before he fell down the stairs, and inspected
a house rife with policy violations, yet no alarm was raised, and the night
raged on.

Who were these checkers, and how could they have missed the obvious
violations that were taking place? The IFC claims that neither it nor St.
Moritz retains any records from that night. Nor will it comment on a fact
that The Daily Collegianreported: that the checkers were not full-time
security guards, but Penn State kids who were working part-time for St.
Moritz. (The company declined to comment.) In the words of Stacy Parks
Miller, the district attorney who brought the charges against the Beta
brothers, the whole system was an elaborate “sham,” one that was exposed
only after Tim Piazza died.

In 2015, a former pledge of Kappa Delta Rho’s Penn State chapter, James
Vivenzio, made national news. He told police that his fraternity had kept a
secret Facebook page where members could post naked pictures of female
students, some of whom were unconscious or being sexually assaulted. He
also said that he had been severely hazed two years earlier, and had
reported the hazing to the Office of Student Conduct. Danny Shaha, the head
of that office, took the report seriously enough to visit Vivenzio in his
Virginia home. Tellingly, his fraternity was the same one that had been
investigated after the five injured students went to Health Services 18
years earlier. Yet Vivenzio claims that Student Conduct did not investigate
his allegations until he went to the police.

Vivenzio is currently suing both the fraternity and the university. His
suit describes the hazing he endured: cigarette burns; “late-night line-ups
that featured force-feeding bucketfuls of liquor mixed with urine, vomit,
hot sauce and other liquid and semi-solid ingredients”; being told to
“guzzle hard liquor without stopping until vomiting was induced.” (Penn
State claims that it could not address Vivenzio’s hazing because he
declined to provide documentation or pursue a formal disciplinary process,
an assertion Vivenzio’s attorney disputes. After he went to the police, the
university suspended the fraternity for three years.)

Another piece of ongoing Penn State litigation involves a student at the
Altoona campus named Marquise Braham, who pledged Phi Sigma Kappa as a
freshman in 2013. His parents’ civil suit describes what he experienced:

Among other things, being forced to consume gross amounts of alcohol, chug
bottles of Listerine, swallow live fish, fight fellow pledges; being burned
with candle wax, deprived of sleep for 89 hours, locked in a room with
other pledges, alcohol, and a trashcan to catch their vomit; having a gun
held to his head; and being forced to kill, gut, and skin animals.

Braham had texted with his residence-hall adviser, a young woman,
desperately seeking help in understanding what was happening to him, but
she only endorsed the system. “Yes it will get worse,” she wrote. “I’m
sorry to say hahaha but it will.”

He made it through the hazing, but the next semester he was expected to
haze other pledges, which broke him. He went home to New York for spring
break, saying that he needed to see a priest. At lunch with his mother the
day before he was to return, he excused himself from the table, climbed to
the top of a nearby building, and jumped to his death. A grand jury found
no link between his death and the hazing he had endured. Penn State
suspended Phi Sigma Kappa’s charter for six years.

After tim piazza fell, four fraternity brothers carried him, unconscious,
to a couch. He was in obvious need of medical attention, yet the fraternity
brothers treated him with a callousness bordering on the sadistic. They
slapped and punched him, threw his shoes at him, poured beer on him, sat
two abreast on his twitching legs. Precious minutes and hours passed by,
the difference between Tim’s life and death.

Two hours into the nightmarish security footage, something extraordinary
happens. A young man walks into the frame and approaches the couch where
Tim is lying, still unconscious. This is Kordel Davis, a recently initiated
freshman brother and the chapter’s only black member at the time. According
to the presentment, he “leans over Timothy’s head. Davis then turns to the
Beta brothers near Timothy and becomes very animated, again pointing at his
head and then at Tim.”

The presentment states that when the brothers told Davis that Tim had
fallen down the basement stairs, he became

even more concerned—now for Timothy’s life. He stressed to them that
Timothy needed to go to the hospital since he could have a concussion.
Davis told them that if Tim was sleeping they needed to wake him up and
call 911 immediately. He screamed at them to get help. In response [Beta
brother] Jonah Neuman rose from the couch and shoved Davis into the
opposite wall. Neuman instructed Davis to leave and that they had it under
control.

Davis then sought out Ed Gilmartin, the vice president of the chapter: “The
camera captures Davis gesturing once more, referring repeatedly to his head
and pointing at Timothy.” Davis testified that Gilmartin told him he was
crazy and “claimed the other brothers were kinesiology and biology majors,”
so Davis’s word “meant nothing to him when compared to theirs.”

I sat with Kordel Davis this summer in the cacophonous food court in
Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, and we talked about that moment.
“They made you doubt yourself,” I said, and—in as pure an expression of
teenage-male anguish as I’ve ever seen, tears welling in his eyes—he said,
“Like I’ve doubted myself my whole life.”

Kordel was born to a 16-year-old single mother in Reading, Pennsylvania,
and was removed from her care and placed in two successive foster homes. At
age 3, he was adopted by a white couple who had already adopted 9-year-old
white twins from foster care, and who would adopt a black infant the next
year; they divorced soon after that, at which point family life was further
complicated by frequent moves, and the eventual introduction of new
stepparents and stepsiblings. Kordel attended a majority-white high school,
where he made good friends and had many caring teachers, and where he found
a mentor in the football coach. Yet he also says that he was hazed as a
freshman on that team, including by an older white player who beat him in
front of others, and that he was called a racist nickname by his teammates.
When the nickname came to the attention of a teacher and his coach, the
other players claimed that it was meant to be affectionate.

“After all that,” I asked him, “why would you join an all-white fraternity
with these privileged kids?”

“Because I’ve been around kids like that all my life,” he said. “I know how
to handle them.”

Or at least he thought he did.

The story of black members of historically white fraternities is a complex
one. Although the clubs started opening their ranks to African Americans in
the 1950s and ’60s, they have few black members; nationally, only 3 percent
of Beta Theta Pi’s members are black, for example. There is reason to
believe that official membership policy and actual practice diverge. In
2015, cellphone video of some Sigma Alpha Epsilon members from the
University of Oklahoma singing a fraternity song
<http://www.oudaily.com/news/ou-s-sigma-alpha-epsilon-fraternity-under-investigation-after-video/article_af86e432-c5ed-11e4-b398-bb5c1269c86c.html>
became
public:

There will never be a n— SAE
There will never be a n— SAE
You can hang him from a tree
But he’ll never sing with me
There will never be a n— SAE

Any hope that this was the local custom of one rogue chapter disappeared
when authorities discovered where the brothers had learned the lyrics: on a
2011 “national leadership cruise” that brought together hundreds of active
and alumni members.

When Kordel Davis was interviewed by a police detective after Tim Piazza’s
death, he had a scar on his forehead, which was still there when I met with
him over the summer. It was from an injury sustained during his own
bid-acceptance night the previous semester, when he, too, had fallen after
drinking heavily. “My shirt, my phone—they were covered in so much blood,”
he told me. His fraternity brothers put him to bed, he survived the night,
and the next morning they took him for medical care—at a privately owned
urgent-care clinic instead of University Health Services, where hazing
might have been suspected. Keeping that incident secret was one of the
costs of membership. Yet after Kordel was initiated, he did not seem to
have the full measure of brotherhood that the others enjoyed. Once, he
brought some friends to a party—to which other brothers had also brought
guests—but was told he was not allowed to have guests, and so he had to
leave, embarrassed, with his friends.

Kordel seemed rootless when I talked with him over the summer. “I lost my
future,” he told me. He was seized by remorse over what had happened to
Tim, and he had decided not to return to Penn State, although he had loved
it there and had been awarded a significant financial-aid package. He’d
read enough on online message boards to know what fraternity members on
campus thought of him: that he had ratted out his brothers by talking so
openly to the police, and thereby ruined Greek life for everyone.

I thought about the summons he had received from the police department,
about the day he had gone there, alone, a 19-year-old black kid in a county
that is 90 percent white, to report on events surrounding the death of a
white college student. Still, the police were kind to him. They had a
nickname for him, based on his actions on the tape: the Good Samaritan.

When I dropped Kordel off at his father’s home, I wondered whether this
experience would indeed cost him his future. But he is resilient,
incredibly so. By summer’s end he had been accepted at Rutgers, and had
taken out student loans to pay his tuition. Perhaps he won’t have to pay
them back himself. I asked a lawyer with extensive knowledge of fraternity
litigation whether Kordel might have his own civil claim against Beta Theta
Pi, and he affirmed that—given the hazing he had experienced as well as the
scarring—he could indeed have a “deep-six-figure claim.”

In late may, shortly after the grand jury’s harrowing presentment was
released to the public, Jud Horras appeared on CBS This Morning
<https://www.cbsnews.com/videos/interfraternity-ceo-on-hazing-we-encourage-criminal-charges/>.
In a conversation with Gayle King, Charlie Rose, and Norah O’Donnell, he
was measured, calm, and so ungraspable—always separating the thugs of one
rogue chapter from the larger entity of the fraternity industry—that midway
through the interview, O’Donnell lost her patience and interrupted him.

“There have been 60 deaths over eight years involving fraternity
activities,” she said angrily. “There should be zero tolerance. There
should be immediate action on this. It is unacceptable. This is murder.”

Her sentiment was one shared by many people when they learned about what
had happened to Tim Piazza, but it revealed a common misunderstanding:
Fraternities do have a zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing. And that’s
probably one of the reasons Tim Piazza is dead.

For most of their long history, fraternities pretty much did as they
pleased. But in the 1980s, parents of injured and dead children began to
fight back: They sued the organizations and began to recover huge sums in
damages. Insurance companies dropped fraternities en masse. Because of this
crisis, the modern fraternity industry was born, one that is essentially
self-insured, with fraternities pooling their money to create a fund from
which damages are paid.

The executives realized that even if they couldn’t change members’
behavior, they had to indemnify themselves against it, which they did by
creating an incredibly strict set of rules, named for a term of art in the
insurance industry: risk-management policies. These policies forbid not
just the egregious behaviors of hazing and sexual assault, but also a vast
range of activities that comprise normal fraternity life in the majority of
chapters. You can’t play beer pong in a fraternity house. You can’t have a
sip of alcohol if you’re under the age of 21, or allow anyone else who’s
underage to have a sip of alcohol. During a party, alcohol consumption must
be tightly regulated. Either the chapter can hire a third-party vendor to
sell drinks—and to assume all liability for what happens after guests
consume them—or members and guests may each bring a small amount of alcohol
for personal use and hand it over to a monitor who labels it, and then
metes it back to the owner in a slow trickle.

In an emergency, when the police and an ambulance show up, the national
organization will easily be able to prove that the members were in
violation of its policies, and will therefore be able to cut them loose and
deny them any of the benefits—including the payment of attorneys’ fees and
damages—that come with the fraternity insurance the members themselves have
paid for.

Fraternity members live under the shadow of giant sanctions and lawsuits
that can result even from what seem like minor incidents. The strict
policies promote a culture of secrecy, and when something really does go
terribly wrong, the young men usually start scrambling to protect
themselves. Doug Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., lawyer whose practice is
built on representing plaintiffs in fraternity lawsuits, told me that “in
virtually every hazing death, there is a critical three or four hours after
the injury when the brothers try to figure out what to do. It is during
those hours that many victims pass the point of no return.”

All of these dynamics came into play the night Tim Piazza was fatally
injured. The chapter president, Brendan Young, was—get this—majoring in
risk management. He fully understood that officers of the fraternity face
greater liability than do regular members. He became the president in
November 2016, and shortly before rush began, in January 2017, he texted
Daniel Casey, the pledge master: “I know you know this. If anything goes
wrong with the pledges this semester then both of us are fucked.” He wasn’t
suggesting they scrap hazing; he was reminding his subordinate that they
had better not get caught doing it. (Young’s lawyer declined to comment.)

Even a full day after Tim died, some members were, amazingly, still focused
on the consequences that could befall them. “Between you and me,” a member
texted Young, “what are the chances the house gets shut down?”

“I think very high,” Young replied. “I just hope none of us get into any
lawsuits.”

“You think they are going to sue?” asked the brother, to which Young
responded in a way that is chilling and that reveals a sophisticated
knowledge of how such events play out: “It depends if they want to go
through with it, or just distance themselves from us all together.”

In fact, Jim and Evelyn Piazza have not chosen to distance themselves from
the men who hazed their late son and left him to a fate that Jim compares
to a crucifixion. They attended every day of the pretrial hearings that
determined which of the charges against the brothers would go to trial, a
grueling process that—with its many continuances and breaks—lasted the
entire summer.

It ended, finally, with what looked like a significant defeat: The
most-serious charges—of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated
assault—were dropped. In the courtroom, the 16 fraternity brothers (two had
waived their right to a preliminary hearing) backslapped one another and
exchanged fist bumps. The Piazzas quietly left.

Still, 14 of the Beta brothers will face a total of 328 criminal
charges—jury selection is scheduled to begin in December—and the Piazzas
also plan to file a civil suit after the trial ends. (When asked for
comment, the national Beta fraternity stated that members of the Penn State
chapter had not met its “expectations of friendship and brotherhood” and
that it had “moved to close the chapter in February and expel men charged
in the case.” An attorney for the chapter did not respond to a request for
comment.)

The university has responded to the crisis with some significant steps: It
has wrested discipline of the fraternities from the IFC, a group run
entirely by frat brothers, and put it firmly in the hands of the Office of
Student Conduct; checks on fraternity parties will be conducted not by St.
Moritz, but by university employees. It has also permanently banned Beta
Theta Pi from campus. The motivation behind these changes may lie as much
in an earnest desire for reform as in a panicked need to contain what could
become an ever-widening scandal, one with the potential to be as newsworthy
as the Sandusky scandal.

At the end of the Piazza presentment, the grand jury issues a stunning
condemnation of Penn State’s fraternity culture:

The Penn State Greek community nurtured an environment so permissive of
excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly
act with reckless disregard to human life … Timothy Piazza died as a direct
result of the extremely reckless conduct of members of the Beta Fraternity
who operated within the permissive atmosphere fostered by the Pennsylvania
State University Interfraternity Council.

The grand jury is now investigating the broader issue of hazing at Penn
State <http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/10/us/braham-hazing-penn-state/index.html>
and
may recommend criminal charges. It is also reviewing the James Vivenzio and
Marquise Braham cases. The presentment that could emanate from those
horrific cases will surely be the subject of intense media scrutiny.

As for the university’s permanent ban of Beta Theta Pi from campus, a week
after the most-serious charges against the former brothers were dropped,
Beta alumni received an email inviting them to stay at their beloved house
during football weekends this fall.

The Greek system has powerful allies at Penn State. After Tim Piazza’s
death, several prominent trustees of the university vouched for
fraternities, which they felt should be reformed but not hobbled. Their
logic was sometimes tortured. William Oldsey told The Philadelphia
Inquirer in May that the story of Tim Piazza—whose parents he pitied
mightily—offered not an indictment but an endorsement of Greek life: “This
is a good-enough system that it attracted a kid of the high caliber and
character of Tim Piazza.”

So let us now imagine all the forces arrayed against 19-year-old Tim Piazza
as he gets dressed in his jacket and tie, preparing to go to his new
chapter house and accept the bid the brothers have offered him.

He is up against a university that has allowed hazing to go on for decades;
a fraternity chapter that has hazed pledge classes at least twice in the
previous 12 months; a set of rules that so harshly punishes hazing that the
brothers will think it better to take a chance with his life than to face
the consequences of having made him get drunk; and a “checking system”
provided by a security firm that is, in many regards, a sham. He thinks he
is going to join a club that his college endorses, and that is true. But it
is also true that he is setting off to get jumped by a gang, and he won’t
survive.

So here is Tim, reaching for his good jacket—in a closet that his mother
will soon visit to select the clothes he will wear in his coffin—a little
bit excited and a little bit nervous.

“They’re going to get me fucked up,” he texts his girlfriend, and then he
pulls closed the door of his college apartment for the last time.

He has been told to show up at exactly 9:07. Inside, the 14 pledges are
lined up, each with his right hand on the right shoulder of the one in
front of him, and taken into the living room, where they are welcomed into
the fraternity with songs and skits. And then it is time for the first act
of hazing in their pledge period: quickly drinking a massive amount of
alcohol in an obstacle course, the “gauntlet.” Court documents and the
security footage provide excruciating detail about what comes next.

About an hour after the gauntlet begins, the pledges return to the living
room, all of them showing signs of drunkenness. At 10:40, Tim appears on
one of the security cameras, assisted by one of the brothers. The forensic
pathologist will later describe his level of intoxication at this point as
“stuporous.” He is staggering, hunched over, and he sits down heavily on
the couch and doesn’t want to get up. But the brother encourages him to
stand and walks him through the dining room and kitchen and back to the
living room, where he sits down again on the couch. And then Tim tries to
do something that could have saved his life.

He stands up, uncertainly, and heads toward the front door. If he makes it
through that door, he may get out to the street, may find a place to sit or
lie down, may come to the attention of someone who can help him—at the very
least by getting him back to his apartment and away from the fraternity. He
reaches the front door, but the mechanism to open it proves too complicated
in his drunken state, so he turns around and staggers toward another door.
Perhaps he is hoping that this door will be easier to open; perhaps he is
hoping that it also leads out of the fraternity house. But it is the door
to the basement, and when he opens it—perhaps expecting his foot to land on
level ground—he takes a catastrophic fall.

On the security footage, a fraternity brother named Luke Visser points
toward the stairs in an agitated way. Greg Rizzo clearly hears the fall and
goes to the top of the steps to see what’s happened. Later, he will tell
the police that he saw Tim “facedown, at the bottom of the steps.” Jonah
Neuman will tell the police that he saw Tim lying facedown with his legs on
the stairs.

Rizzo sends a group text: “Tim Piazza might actually be a problem. He fell
15 feet down a flight of steps, hair-first, going to need help.” (Rizzo,
who was not charged with any crimes, told the police that he later
advocated for calling an ambulance.)

Four of the brothers carry Tim up the stairs. By now he has somehow lost
his jacket and tie, and his white shirt has ridden up, revealing a strange,
dark bruise on his torso. This is from his lacerated spleen, which has
begun spilling blood into his abdomen. The brothers put him on a couch, and
Rizzo performs a sternum rub—a test for consciousness used by EMTs—but Tim
does not respond. Another brother throws beer in his face, but he does not
respond. Someone throws his shoes at him, hard. Someone lifts his arm and
it falls back, deadweight, to his chest.

At this point, the brothers have performed a series of tests to determine
whether Tim is merely drunk or seriously injured. He has failed all their
tests. The next day, Tim’s father will ask the surgeon who delivers the
terrible news of Tim’s prognosis whether the outcome would have been
different if Tim had gotten help earlier, and the surgeon will
say—unequivocally—that yes, it would have been different. That “earlier” is
right now, while Tim is lying here, unresponsive to the sternum rub, the
beer poured on him, the dropped arm.

A brother named Ryan Foster rolls Tim on his side, but has to catch him
because he almost rolls onto the floor. Jonah Neuman straps a backpack full
of books to him to keep him from rolling over and aspirating vomit. Two
brothers sit on Tim’s legs to keep him from moving.

This is the moment when Kordel Davis arrives and attempts to save Tim’s
life, only to be thrown against the wall by Neuman. Davis disappears from
the video, in search of an officer of the club. By now Tim is “thrashing
and making weird movements,” according to the grand-jury presentment.

Daniel Casey comes into the room, looks at Tim, and slaps him in the face
three times. Tim does not respond. Two other brothers wrestle near the
couch and end up slamming on top of Tim, whose spleen is still pouring
blood into his abdomen. Tim begins to twitch and vomit.

At this point, Joseph Ems appears “frustrated” by Tim, according to the
grand jury. With an open hand, he strikes the unconscious boy hard, on the
abdomen, where the bruise has bloomed. This blow may be one of the reasons
the forensic pathologist will find that Tim’s spleen was not just
lacerated, but “shattered.” (Ems was originally charged with recklessly
endangering another person, but that charge—the only one brought against
him—has been dropped.) Still, Tim does not wake up.

Forty-five minutes later, Tim rolls onto the floor. The heavy backpack is
still strapped to him. He rolls around, his legs moving. He attempts to
stand up, and manages to free himself from the backpack, which falls to the
floor. But the effort is too much, and he falls backwards, banging his head
on the hardwood floor. A fraternity member shakes him, gets no response,
and walks away.

At 3:46 in the morning, Tim is on the floor, curled up in the fetal
position. At home in New Jersey, his parents are sleeping. Across campus,
his older brother, Mike, has no idea that Tim is not safely in his bed.

At 3:49 a.m., Tim wakes up and struggles to his knees, cradling his head in
his hands; he falls again to the hardwood floor. An hour later, he manages
to stand up, and staggers toward the front door, but within seconds he
falls, headfirst, into an iron railing and then onto the floor. On some
level he must know: I am dying. He stands once again and tries to get to
the door. His only hope is to get out of this house, but he falls headfirst
once again.

At 5:08 a.m., Tim is on his knees, his wounded head buried in his hands.
Around campus, people are beginning to wake up. The cafeteria workers are
brewing coffee; athletes are rising for early practices. It’s cold and
still dark, but the day is beginning. Tim is dying inside the Beta house,
steps away from the door he has been trying all night to open.

Around 7 o’clock, another pledge wanders into the living room, where Tim is
now lying on the couch groaning, and the pledge watches as he rolls off the
couch and onto the floor, and again lifts himself to his knees and cradles
his head in his hands, “as if he had a really bad headache.” The pledge
lifts his cellphone, records Tim’s anguish on Snapchat, and then—while Tim
is rocking back and forth on the floor—leaves the house. A few minutes
later, Tim stands and staggers toward the basement steps, and disappears
from the cameras’ view.

The house begins to stir. Some fraternity members head off to class, and in
the fullness of time they return. And then, at about 10 a.m., a brother
named Kyle Pecci (who was not charged) arrives and asks a pledge, Daniel
Erickson (who was also not charged), a question that seems to both of them
a casual one: Whatever happened to that pledge who fell down the stairs at
the party? They come across Tim’s shoes, and realize that Tim must still be
somewhere in the house, so they look for him. The search reveals him
collapsed behind one of the bars in the basement. He is lying on his back,
with his arms tight at his sides and his hands gripped in fists. His face
is bloody and his breathing is labored. His eyes are half open; his skin is
cold to the touch; he is unnaturally pale. Three men carry him upstairs and
put him on the couch, but no one calls 911.

Fraternity brothers with garbage bags appear in the footage and start
cleaning up the evidence. Brothers try to prop Tim up on the couch and
dress him, but his limbs are too stiff and they can’t do it. Someone wipes
the blood off his face, and someone else tries, without luck, to pry open
his clenched fingers. Clearly the brothers are trying to make this terrible
situation appear a little bit better for when the authorities arrive. But
they do not use their many cellphones to call 911. Instead one brother uses
his phone to do a series of internet searches for terms such as cold
extremities in drunk person and binge drinking, alcohol, bruising or
discoloration, cold feet and cold hands.

Where is Tim right now, as his body lies on the couch? Are his soul and
self still here, in the room, or have they already slipped away? He has put
up a valiant, almost incredible fight for his life, but by now he has lost
that fight. When he was a little boy, he used to make people laugh because
he got so frustrated with board games; he didn’t like playing those games,
with their rules and tricks. He loved sports, and running, and playing with
his friends at the beach. But his body is cold now, his legs and arms
unbending.

Finally, at 10:48 a.m., a brother calls 911—perhaps realizing that it would
be best to do so while the pledge is still technically alive—and Tim is
delivered from the charnel house. Soon his parents will race toward him,
and so will his frantic brother, who has been searching for him. They will
be reunited for the few hours they have left with this redheaded boy they
have loved so well, and at least it can be said that Tim did not die alone,
or in the company of the men who tortured him.

On February 7, the Facebook page of the Beta Theta Pi national organization
will report that “Tim Piazza, a sophomore at Penn State who had recently
accepted an invitation to join the Fraternity, has passed due to injuries
sustained from an accidental fall in the chapter house.” Flags at the
fraternity’s administrative offices in Oxford, Ohio, will fly at half-mast
for eight days, “representative of the eight young men of Tim’s same age
who founded the Fraternity.” The Facebook post will encourage collegiate
members around the country to “conduct Beta’s official Burial Service” on
Friday evening, from 4 to 8 o’clock. And with those final rituals of the
fraternity, Tim Piazza’s 28-hour membership in Beta Theta Pi will come to
an end. “Rest in peace, Tim Piazza,” ends the post. “Rest in peace.”

TheAtlantic.com Copyright (c) 2017 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All
Rights Reserved.

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.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.