Hazing's dangerous drinking gauntlet

Timothy Piazza consumed 18 drinks, according to court records, and sustained traumatic injuries that would contribute to his death during fraternity hazing rituals at Penn State. Watch "A Deadly Haze: Inside the Fraternity Crisis" Saturday, December 8 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Posted: Dec 6, 2018 2:36 PM
Updated: Dec 6, 2018 2:43 PM

Inhumane, cruel and tragic: Those are some of the words that have been used to describe the 2017 death of Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza.

The 19-year-old died after consuming 18 drinks in 82 minutes and sustaining a traumatic brain injury during a campus fraternity's hazing rituals, court records and testimony show.

Now, nearly two years after Piazza's passing, many say his death has led to key changes in state legislatures and in the college Greek life community.

"The Piazza case is really a turning point to the extent that people know that fraternity hazing is unacceptable," said John Hechinger, author of "True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities."

Four families that lost their sons to fraternity hazing -- including Timothy's parents, Jim and Evelyn -- began working in September with the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference. Together, those two groups represent more than 90 fraternities and sororities in the United States.

Read more: What to know before pledging a fraternity or sorority

The parents and the Greek life organizations have formed an anti-hazing coalition and now share a common goal: to pass legislation that would increase criminal penalties for hazing, and to increase education and awareness on college campuses.

"While we may seem like strange bedfellows, we all want the same thing: to end hazing so other parents don't have to experience what we have," Jim Piazza said.

So far, the Piazzas have spoken at more than a dozen campuses, directly addressing thousands of students and fraternity and sorority leaders.

"It makes more sense to work with them and have the opportunity to speak to fraternities and sororities and schools ... and stop hazing in its tracks by the people who are perpetrating it," Evelyn Piazza said. "Why not stop it before it even starts?"

Read more: Greek life more popular than ever, despite recent controversy and deaths

Rich Braham is another parent who's traveled to colleges and universities across the country to support the two-fold mission of education and changing laws.

Braham's 18-year-old son, Marquise, committed suicide in 2014, and the family believes it was because of alleged hazing while at Penn State Altoona. The case never resulted in criminal charges and the Braham family filed a civil lawsuit against Penn State, two of its employees as well as the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity and two members of its local chapter. The Brahams have reached settlements with all of the defendants in that case.

The fraternity's national leadership objected to the suit's allegations in a statement last year, saying that "Marquise's tragic suicide had nothing to do with his involvement with the fraternity." In a statement, Penn State "disputes the family's characterization of these matters," but later told CNN, "Penn State Altoona looks forward to working with the Braham family in educating parents of prospective Greek life members."

On the campuses he visits, Braham wants to make it clear that these incidents can happen to anyone -- and that there will be consequences.

"There was nothing special or unique about our kids. It was Russian roulette," Braham said. "We want these kids to know that it could be any one of them who dies from hazing. Then, if you don't hear the message, we'll lock you up! If you don't listen, there's a penalty. It could ruin your lives and future."

Referring to the case of Timothy Piazza, Braham vividly recalls that the fraternity's members waited more than 12 hours to call 911 after Timothy fell down a flight of stairs.

"Letting him suffer the way he suffered was just so atrocious," Braham said. "Tim's death was a galvanizing point. ... It was like, 'enough.'"

This new coalition of parents harks back to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) campaign of the 1980s, said John Hechinger, who has reported on fraternities and education for years.

When Candace Lightner started MADD in May 1980, four days after her daughter was killed by a drunken driver, public health professionals considered drunken driving to be the No. 1 killer of Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. (The leading cause of death in 2016 for that age group was accidental injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

MADD's efforts helped reduce the number of drunken driving fatalities and change public perception of driving while intoxicated. Now, the parents in the anti-hazing coalition want to achieve the same with respect to dangerous pledging rituals, and they've made some strides on campus and with policy.

In August, the North American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 fraternities with more than 6,100 chapters across 800 campuses, declared a ban on hard alcohol beginning in September 2019. Under the policy, hard liquor -- categorized as more than 15% alcohol by volume -- will still be allowed if it is served by a licensed third-party vendor.

Read more: Why college students subject themselves to abusive hazing

"Most of the deaths have involved hard alcohol; if a ban on hard alcohol can successfully be enforced, it could be a great thing," Hechinger said. "My view is that any step is better than none."

But Doug Fierberg, a school violence attorney who has represented many families who have lost their children to hazing, is more critical.

"No new policy is ever going to be better than its means of implementation," Fierberg said. "Virtually everything the fraternity industry does relies on 18- and 19-year-old men to implement it and make life and death decisions."

In October, the Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law was signed by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. It gives tougher penalties for hazing, making it a felony if it results in death or serious injury.

For its part, Penn State is also developing a national scorecard to provide public information on Greek letter organizations, including alcohol and hazing violations and chapter suspensions.

At the time the Piazza law was signed, a Penn State spokeswoman said it came "in conjunction with the aggressive safety and related measures the University has implemented, (and) is another step toward our mutual goal to increase student safety on campuses."

"Penn State has been, and continues to be, committed to addressing this serious national issue," spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in a statement.

With its anti-hazing law, Pennsylvania joined at least 12 other states with tougher anti-hazing laws. But the long-term impact of these efforts remains to be seen.

Since Piazza's death, there have been other alcohol-related deaths at fraternities across the country. A number of headlines have emerged pointing to fraternities and local chapters being suspended for hazing and alcohol abuse. And even with all that, Greek life is still more popular than ever.

"On one side, we're seeing all of this apparent reform action, (but) on the other, we're seeing pushback from the student body," said Hank Nuwer, author of "Hazing: Destroying Young Lives." "As much good work as the Piazzas are doing, not everybody is listening."

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