This past spring, Timothy Piazza, a 19-year-old student at Penn State died due to a combination of toxic levels of alcohol in his system, multiple falls, and the ignorance of his fraternity brothers (even after it was allegedly evident he needed to be taken to hospital). The Washington Post reported that Piazza was forced to drink massive quantities of alcohol in a short time span as part of a hazing ritual.
Over a span of 12 hours, Piazza fell off a couch multiple times—onto an iron railing, a stone floor, and eventually head first into the front door of the frat house, leaving him unconscious. This was all witnessed by multiple people, but nobody decided to take action until it was too late. Before he was taken to a medical center by his fraternity brothers, Piazza had fallen once more, down the steps to the basement, where he remained for hours before anyone came to his aid.
Piazza's fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, is now being charged with a number of crimes, including hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, tampering with evidence, and more. Additionally, 18 of the fraternity brothers are being charged in connection to Piazza's death—eight of them with involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.
While binge drinking and acting reckless on campus is nothing new, the problem has actually worsened—research from 2015 shows that more than 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related incidents every year. What's shocking is how little universities have actually done—beyond the occasional suspension or sternly-worded press release—to successfully change the pattern of alcohol-fueled deaths.
Alcohol- and drug-related hazing is still a reliable pillar of Greek campus life. In 2015, an 18-year-old student at the University of South Carolina was found dead of alcohol poisoning. Charles Terreni Jr. was a member of Pi Alpha Kappa, and he died after a night of partying at a St. Patrick's Day party that the fraternity hosted. The university ended up suspending the fraternity after Terreni's death, and the administration debated eliminating pledging altogether. Since then, the university has placed on probation or suspended 13 fraternities associated with alcohol misconduct and hazing.
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"If we were to ask people if bullying is okay or not and if it needs to be stopped in K-12, basically everyone would say that it is horrible and we must do everything to stop it," says Deborah Cohan, a professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. "Hazing that is part of Greek life is bullying in the extreme."
Cohan notes that, for students, a lot is at stake when considering entering the Greek system. "It is built on the idea that you endured something that makes you worthy of the group's investment," she says. "Fraternity hazing is also built on norms of objectification, humiliation, binge drinking, [and] violence against women. This stuff is a matter of life and death—young men are at risk of dying and young women are getting raped."
Cohan acknowledges how difficult it can be to create any sort of meaningful change in this aspect of Greek life. "Some schools feel pressured because they regard it as a retention issue or an issue that could anger some alumni who might be a donor base."
At Penn State, changes—even in the aftermath of Piazza's death—have been minimal. The administration suspended all pledging for the Fall 2017 semester and made formal warnings against hazing. Amy Kinsey, a recent Penn State graduate who served as president for the Health and Human Development Student Council, says it's a case of too little, too late. "The restrictions they put in place, a lot of universities already have them—like how freshmen aren't allowed to rush during their first semester. We've let that stuff slide [for] years."
According to Kinsey, one hurdle is the culture of secrecy among those involved in Greek life. "A lot of stuff just gets underreported, and the mentality behind it is that if it doesn't get reported then it doesn't happen," she says. Regarding hazing, she says "nobody is open to talking about what happens. Even just talking to people I know and am friends with—they just choose not to talk about it. It's kind of been like a don't ask, don't tell policy."
Kinsey understands not wanting to get into trouble, but it's that fear that leads to students dying. Piazza died not just due to alcohol poisoning, but because so many of his fraternity brothers did nothing to help him when he needed it.
The idea that a student would neglect to help another because of the risk of getting kicked out is unsettling—and one some that universities are finally working to change. Temple University in Philadelphia, for instance, adopted the "Don't Stall, Just Call" protocol. The program helps students spot the signs of alcohol poisoning, and teaches them about medical amnesty—a policy in which you can call the authorities about alcohol-related issues without risking legal trouble.
Temple says it has seen an increase in calls since the program was implemented.
More schools could learn from Temple's program: In general, universities have a lot to work on when it comes to addressing issues with alcohol on campus, says Dan Bureau, an administrator in the office of student affairs at the University of Memphis. As a founding board member of Hazing Prevention—and someone who has worked with fraternities and sororities for more than 20 years—Bureau has a feel for why fraternities drag their feet when it comes to change. "National organizations are afraid of the impact this could have on membership, particularly when alumni become involved in making those changes. A lot of national organizations think that it would not be appealing to students who want to join them, and alumni could push back more and withdraw donations," he says.
That's not to say some fraternities haven't taken the initiative. Phi Delta Theta—which has nearly 190 active chapters—decided in 1997 to create an alcohol-free housing policy, which went fully into action in 2000. That means no drinking on any property the fraternity owns, at any college. And, according to COO Sean Wagner, "instituting the policy was both the right thing to do and has been transformational for us as an organization."
Phi Delta Theta national board member Bob Biggs understands the hesitation that other fraternities might have with a policy like theirs. He recalls that when the policy was first enacted, board members were concerned they'd be voted out because they "took away the alcohol." But he adds that due to a number of factors—rising incidents and lawsuits, not to mention declining membership and poor scholarship, among others, a big change was needed.
And in the end, the changes were a success, Biggs adds. Alumni donations actually went up, and the liability insurance per member decreased by 50 percent. Insurance claims—and their severity—dropped by 61 percent and 94 percent, respectively.
"People realized that we need to get back to our core values. We had drifted away from them," he says. "We were in the bar business and we needed to get out."
Update: A previous version of this story did not include Biggs' comments.
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