Early this spring, Jim Piazza emailed the leader of a national association of fraternities and said: We need to talk.
Piazza's son Tim died after falling down stairs at a Penn State University fraternity bid event, one of several horrific deaths of young people in recent years that brought national attention to the dangers of hazing. Colleges across the country have grappled with the issue unsuccessfully for many years, with initiation traditions continuing in many places despite rules barring them.
Judson Horras, president and chief executive officer of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, agreed to meet with Piazza and another father whose son had died after hazing, Rich Braham. There was trepidation on both sides, Braham said. “We lost our kids to Greek-life organizations and we're meeting with the enemy," he said.
But Horras listened as they told him how fraternities need to change. And that meeting led to more, to a growing sense of trust, and ultimately to the creation of an unusual coalition: Four grieving families have joined with associations representing more than 100 national fraternities and sororities in an effort to combat hazing through tougher laws and better education.
"We don't want any more families that are like our families, shattered, broken, without our beautiful children,” Braham said. He and his wife, Maille, are mourning the death of their son, Marquise Braham.
Horras said he left that first meeting with two pressing thoughts in his cab ride to the airport. The first was that it had been a gift from God, an unexpected path forward. The second was that they needed to get many more people involved. The coalition now includes the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 fraternities, and the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 26 sororities, with support from other groups such as the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values, the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors and HazingPrevention.Org.
There were parents and groups that didn't trust the fraternities or want to collaborate with them, Braham said. But he and the Piazzas felt they shared the same goal: keeping students safe.
Asked why they think they can be successful when so many past efforts have failed to stop hazing, Carole Jones, the chairman of the National Panhellenic Conference, said, “The difference is, we've never had parents involved before. Fraternities and sororities have never partnered with parents who have lived this devastation,” and their stories are having a huge impact on students.
And with a spotlight on hazing deaths in the past couple of years, there's an understanding of the need for serious changes, Horras said, and a reason for college students to think about the issue with greater urgency.
The North-American Interfraternity Conference announced this month that beginning next September, hard alcohol will be banned from its more than 6,100 chapters and their events. It's the first time the fraternities voted unanimously on an alcohol issue in the history of the organization, he said.
The relationship has opened doors, Piazza said, allowing the parents to talk directly to Greek organizations and their members. The families have already spoken to thousands of students through fraternity conferences and other events and have more meetings scheduled into next year.
This summer, at a fraternity leadership conference, hundreds of people lined up to talk with the parents one-on-one after hearing them speak.
After parents talk about losing a son, “you can see it on their faces,” Piazza said. Many of the students cry. “We ask them to bring it back to their chapter houses: Don't let this happen on your watch."
They don't lecture, said Evelyn Piazza, Jim Piazza's wife. They just let students know how devastating it has been for their family. “We brought them into our world. … If they can feel it, they will remember it."
They plan to create online programming to spread the message widely and design a curriculum that would allow college students to teach younger students about hazing and bullying, to try to prevent problems early. The hope is that older students will deliver the message in a more direct and compelling way to middle and high school students, and that the college students will then be more likely to speak up if they see something wrong on their own campuses.
The Piazzas and Brahams were joined by Stephen and Rae Ann Gruver, parents of Max Gruver, and Lianne and Brian Kowiak, parents of Harrison Kowiak, in their efforts. They have begun meeting with lawmakers, advocating for a federal law that would require colleges to report hazing incidents publicly as they do with crimes committed on campus and increase efforts to prevent hazing through education.
They plan to push state legislatures to increase criminal penalties for hazing and emphasize transparency in reporting such incidents. They are lobbying to ensure that forced excessive drinking is viewed like other forms of injury caused by hazing. And they want universities to make changes such as punishing students as well as chapters for bad behavior and bringing in parents like themselves to speak at orientation so that students and families know the dangers. “The universities need to step up, too,” Braham said.
Braham said when he talked to students, he told them that hazing could take anyone — it’s like Russian roulette. “Their parents could have been up on that stage; our kids could have been in the audience,” he said.
Horras said he watched the change in fraternity brothers' faces as Jim Piazza told them he didn't care what they did in the past, even if they had been hazers: “All I care about is, you make a difference going forward."