The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Hit them in their heart’: These parents lost kids to hazing. They’re trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Students at the College of New Jersey reacted with tears and stunned silence in May to Evelyn and Jim Piazza, who described the hazing death of their son Tim at Penn State. (Mark Makela/For The Washington Post)

EWING, N.J. — The auditorium at the College of New Jersey was filled with hundreds of fraternity and sorority members, on a night during Greek Week. The event had sounded all too familiar to many: Go hear some adults tell you about the dangers of hazing. Again.

But their chatter had died away and their phones were in their pockets as Evelyn and Jim Piazza showed them photos of their tall, grinning son and told them how, after a gantlet of drinks and a headfirst fall down a flight of stairs at his Pennsylvania State University fraternity house, Tim Piazza was put in an ambulance, alone.

Evelyn Piazza asked the students how many had a sibling close to their age, then asked them to close their eyes and imagine what it was like for Tim’s brother, Mike Piazza, a Penn State student, too, when he learned Tim had not come home from the pledge event the night before.

Students in the audience closed their eyes, listening.

“You rush to the hospital,” Evelyn Piazza told them, “and see your brother on life support,” in a neck brace, bruised, bloody.

“The doctor tells you it’s bad,” she said. “He has bleeding on his brain, his spleen is ruptured, he has a punctured lung, he needs a blood transfusion.”

The parents do not even know there has been an accident, and Tim is getting medevaced to a trauma hospital for neurosurgery.

“You talk to him even though he’s unconscious,” she said, crying, forcing the words out. The room was silent, except for a few muffled sobs in the audience. “You tell him to hang in there . . . you love him,” she said. “A tear rolls down his cheek: You think he heard you. They take him away.”

An urgent message

Jim and Evelyn Piazza gave the same speech to more than 5,000 students at Clemson University in September, then flew to the University of Florida and then to the University of Kansas and Kansas State to give it again. Evelyn Piazza delivered it at Louisiana State University, the University of North Carolina and Duke University, and they both spoke at American University and George Washington University last month.

They deliver this speech at big state schools and small liberal-arts colleges and fraternity leadership conferences, as many times as they can fit events into their overbooked schedules.

The demand for their message reflects a new urgency to confront what has been an intractable problem. It also reflects the benefits of an unexpected alliance: Grieving parents have partnered with national Greek organizations in an aggressive, multipronged effort to end hazing — a campaign that has taken them to Congress.

Late last month, the End All Hazing Act was introduced in the Senate with bipartisan support. It is part of an accelerating campaign led by parents who have succeeded in winning over lawmakers and fraternity leaders to compel transparency and impose consequences for an often-hidden danger.

They have an even more ambitious objective: a complete culture change. They want to make hazing as unacceptable as driving drunk, using the force of law and the impact of their own stories.

The first known fraternity hazing death happened in 1873, at Cornell University, according to Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has been studying the issue for more than 40 years.

Over the past six decades, according to Nuwer’s research, not a year has gone by without a fatality linked to hazing.

This feels like a turning point, Nuwer said. This is the first time there are so many parents so determined. “They want to stop the hazing deaths,” he said.

Every time Tim’s parents get onstage for a speech, Evelyn Piazza can feel herself shaking, almost vibrating. She can feel the heaviness in her chest. Every time, it is as hard as the first time, when Tim’s girlfriend asked if they would be willing to talk about their son at her small college.

But they keep confronting their worst memories, delving into the agony for group after group, hoping people will feel, and remember, their story.

“We feel like we have to,” Jim Piazza said. “If we didn’t do it, who would?”

Saying goodbye

At 19, Tim Piazza had his future mapped out, his parents said: He wanted to earn his diploma in engineering, marry his high school sweetheart and design artificial limbs for children with disabilities. He was tall, athletic and confident, someone who loved to toss a football on the beach and make people laugh, who danced so hard at prom that his pants split.

He was so full of life that when his parents got to the hospital that day in February 2017, they could not imagine why a chaplain had joined them. Then they saw their son, swaddled in gauze. Someone was asking if they wanted to donate his kidney — the only organ that was not damaged.

A nurse told Evelyn Piazza to kiss her son goodbye. He went into cardiac arrest again. At 1:23 a.m., he was dead.

The Piazzas have never watched the video from inside the fraternity house. A grand jury’s report described how Tim could be seen trying to get out the door after he and other pledges went through an obstacle course of alcohol. About 11 p.m., he staggered toward the basement steps and apparently fell down a flight of stairs. Four fraternity members carried him upstairs and dropped him on a couch, limp and unresponsive.

Between 3 and 5 a.m., he tried to get up several times and fell repeatedly, hitting his head on the floor, an iron railing, a stone floor, the front door. After 7 a.m., he apparently fell down the basement stairs again.

Fraternity members found him unconscious later that morning. More than 40 minutes after that — almost 12 hours after his initial fall — someone called 911.

The case attracted national attention, in part because it was so emblematic of the senseless, wrenching reality of hazing, and in part because the video exposed scenes that usually can be kept hidden.

The Piazzas attended criminal trials of fraternity members; those trials ended with misdemeanor verdicts for most. (Advocates for fraternity members have argued that Tim Piazza entered the chapter house voluntarily, that he may have had preexisting health conditions and that the young men could not have been expected to know the seriousness of his injuries.) The Piazzas reached settlements with Penn State and Beta Theta Pi fraternity. They created a foundation that gives prosthetic limbs and other medical equipment to children with disabilities. They lobbied for the Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law that was enacted in Pennsylvania. They helped form an advocacy group, Parents United to Stop Hazing. They filed a federal wrongful-death lawsuit against 28 members of the fraternity and the security company that was hired to monitor parties for safety.

And Jim Piazza emailed the leader of a national association of fraternities and told him they needed to talk.

An unexpected alliance

Inside a Washington law firm one afternoon last spring, a group of parents gathered at a long table, preparing for a day on Capitol Hill pushing for anti-hazing legislation. Whenever someone new came in, they would be pulled into tight hugs, with people wiping away tears.

“If you’ve lost a child this way, you get it,” said Richard Braham, whose son Marquise was a student at Penn State-Altoona when he died. “We know we understand one another.”

Some in the room had been grieving for years. For one father, it had been only a few months. When someone else mentioned all the days at the cemetery, he dropped his head into his hands.

The coalition grew organically. Shortly after their son Max Gruver’s death at Louisiana State University in 2017, Steve and Rae Ann Gruver opened his journal to a page where he had written that God sometimes does bad things to create good.

They took it as a sign.

Soon after, they met the Piazzas. “I remember telling Jim, ‘I want to make sure this never happens to another kid,’ ” Gruver said.

There were others in the room who were not relatives of dead college students: leaders of Greek umbrella organizations, such as Dani Weatherford, chief executive of the National Panhellenic Conference, and Judson Horras, president and chief executive of the North American Interfraternity Conference.

When Jim Piazza first reached out to Horras, there was trepidation on both sides.

Getting together with him, Braham said, was meeting with the enemy.

But they developed trust that has endured.

Many parents remain virulently anti-Greek after losing a child. The Piazzas and the parents of the Anti-Hazing Coalition see a broader problem, one that plays out in high school locker rooms, on band buses, in all sorts of settings. They think fraternities can help by confronting the issue in their own chapters, and they even envision a way that members could help prevent it in other settings: Jim Piazza wants to create a program that would bring college students into middle and high schools, to talk directly with younger students about the dangers.

The alliance with Greek organizations has opened doors, getting the parents in front of fraternity leaders and tens of thousands of members. The North American Interfraternity Conference helps with scheduling and logistics for the parents when they speak.

“It’s just been foot on the accelerator ever since,” Gruver said.

'Human dignity'

Steve Gruver remembered hearing about the volunteer work and high GPAs of fraternities at LSU’s orientation; he did not hear that some of the groups also had a pattern of violations and hazing allegations. Requiring schools to track and disclose that could help parents and students make better decisions, he said.

Federal bills to do that have always died in committee, Nuwer said. He believes schools are too concerned about their public images to be transparent about the extent of binge drinking and hazing on campus.

The coalition is also pushing for legislation at the state level to ensure hazing is treated as a felony.

Louisiana recently toughened its law from one of the weakest in the country to one of the toughest, Nuwer said. “That’s because of the efforts of the Gruver family.”

The legislation is important, Horras said. “But where you really make a difference is where people understand this is about human dignity and how you treat each other.” Having heard parents speak dozens of times, he said the impact on students is obvious.

“We’re trying to have it hit them in their heart,” Braham said. “What sort of person are you? You get to choose. Are you a kind and decent person — or a torturer?”

Not 'on my watch'

After one of her first speeches, when Evelyn Piazza and Rae Ann Gruver addressed the national leadership conference of a fraternity, “those boys were bawling their eyes out and hugging us,” Evelyn Piazza said. “We realized how powerful it could be.”

Often after the parents speak, people stand in line “to talk to us, to hug us, to thank us,” Jim Piazza said. “They’ll say to us, ‘This won’t happen on my watch.’ ”

Every once in a while, they can tell they are not getting through; people are looking at their phones instead of the stage. At one large university recently, fraternity brothers began coughing, from corner to corner of the room, taunting them.

But usually the speeches are emotional. Gruver and his wife had spoken at their son’s high school that morning, where their younger son is a senior. “You could hear a pin drop,” he said. “There’s always a lot of tears.”

He put his hand over his eyes, overwhelmed for a moment. “I promise you our sons are watching us through all this, helping guide us through this.”

'Live like Tim'

At the College of New Jersey, the Piazzas ended their speech with the aftermath of their son’s death. There are the painful milestones like his birthday and Penn State’s commencement this year, when Mike Piazza graduated from his five-year program, but Tim was not there to get his engineering diploma. There is the beginning of every month, when they think of the first days of February 2017, inexorably following the timeline to 1:23 a.m. There are all the little reminders: hearing the song that was his ringtone, seeing a football, getting to the beach house he loved.

“Not a day goes by — not a minute goes by — that I’m not thinking about Tim, lying on that basement floor,” Jim Piazza said.

They challenged the audience to find their own way to change the culture. “Don’t be the person who does this to someone,” Evelyn Piazza said.

The Piazzas stayed onstage, answering question after question from the audience. As people left the auditorium, one student slid down the banister outside the building, and his friends laughed. But inside, other students had gathered around the parents to thank them. One fraternity member had tears in his eyes; all he could say to Evelyn Piazza before walking away was that he had a twin brother, and he could imagine.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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