Timothy Piazza’s death led to the permanent banning of the fraternity from Penn State, and strict new rules for Greek organizations on campus. Penn State’s president called the grand jury’s findings “sickening” and vowed to firmly enforce the new rules.
The grand jury concluded that this was not an isolated incident but rather, “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.”
The Beta Theta Pi chapter house was celebrating with Piazza and other students who had just accepted bids to join the fraternity one night in February. During the pledging party, Piazza fell down the stairs after drinking excessively, but no one called for help for almost 12 hours, according to police, who found him unconscious and took him to a hospital. He died the next morning.
Eight of the fraternity brothers were charged with involuntary manslaughter, as was the chapter, and other charges included hazing, aggravated and simple assault, alcohol-related violations and evidence tampering. The investigation benefited from video evidence from surveillance cameras inside the fraternity’s house, which is privately owned.
The grand jury’s presentment describes pledges ordered to go through a gauntlet of drinking stations at the party that night, at which they were ordered to quickly drink vodka, shotgun a beer, and so on. It described videotape of Piazza being helped staggering, hunched over, to a couch and later trying unsuccessfully to open the front door, then “severely staggering” in the direction of the basement steps a little before 11 p.m.
He was found unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, according to the findings. Shortly before midnight, a fraternity brother wrote on a group message that Piazza “might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of stairs, hair-first, going to need help.”
Later video showed Piazza on a couch, unresponsive even as fraternity brothers poured water on his face, his left arm falling limply when someone lifted it, according to the grand jury presentment. Someone sat on his legs to keep him from rolling off the couch. At one point, a newly initiated member of the fraternity saw Piazza, became upset and screamed at the others that they needed to get him to the hospital. Someone pushed him against a wall and ordered him to leave, telling him they had the situation under control. When he tried to convince another brother to call 911, the new member was told he was crazy.
At about 1 a.m., fraternity brothers put a backpack full of books on Piazza, who had thrown up and was twitching, in an attempt to keep him from rolling onto his back, according to the jurors’ findings. After 3 a.m., Piazza tried to stand but fell, hitting his head on the floor. He fell again at 4 a.m. At 5 a.m., he fell, hit his head on an iron railing and landed on a stone floor. He got up, trying to get to the front door, but fell and hit his head on the door. Fraternity brothers stepped over him. After 7 a.m., Piazza fell down the basement stairs again. When fraternity members found him, unconscious, cold to the touch, and with blood on his face the next morning, it was more than 40 minutes before they called 911.
Piazza died the next morning.
His parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, stood by as the charges were announced, according to an Associated Press report from the news conference Friday, and his father said the death didn’t have to happen: “Sadly,” Jim Piazza said, “we’re never going to see his smile again except in pictures.”
Eric Barron, the president of Penn State, responded to the grand jury’s findings with a statement expressing horror and determination to enforce strict new rules:
The details alleged in these findings are heart-wrenching and incomprehensible. The university community continues to mourn his tragic death, but no pain we feel can begin to compare to the devastating heartbreak that Timothy’s family and friends are experiencing.
The alleged details in the grand jury presentment, which suggest the inhumane treatment of a student forced through hazing to consume dangerous amounts of alcohol and endure hours of suffering, are sickening and difficult to understand.
He also wrote that the chapter, which had a policy banning alcohol, appeared to be a “model” fraternity. It was not.
For this reason, we have announced the imposition of a number of aggressive measures and made clear recognition by the university is at stake for those Greek-letter organizations that do not abide by the rules. Indeed, since this tragic incident occurred, the university suspended Sigma Alpha Mu for its flagrant violations of our measures. While some have criticized our measures as excessive, they are not. It is essential that all constituents, including these private Greek-letter organizations, alumni, parents, national organizations and all other partners involved are committed to ensure immediate, vital and sustainable changes.
The new rules included a ban on liquor, kegs and day-long parties. Ten Greek parties with alcohol are allowed per semester rather than 45, and compliance is monitored by both students and university staff.
“Alcohol misuse, hazing and sexual misconduct pose significant problems across the nation and particularly on college campuses,” Barron wrote. “We have also seen a rise in the intensity of excessive drinking and hazing at Penn State and elsewhere, despite more than a decade of focus and the introduction of educational and other programs, as well as policies that clearly spell out consequences.”
Leaders of Beta Theta Pi International responded in a written statement Friday, saying the charges “are incredibly disheartening as the organization and its membership continue to grieve Tim’s passing and the pain experienced by his family.”
They wrote that the fraternity had cooperated fully with officials in the investigation and that early findings indicated that “the behavior of several undergraduate members was in direct contradiction of the International Fraternity’s expectations and risk management policies, as well as the International Fraternity’s reputation and commitment to character development.”
The fraternity underscored that it does not tolerate hazing or alcohol abuse, and that the former members were well educated by both the fraternity and the university on those polices, “however, they are entitled to the presumption of innocence as they face these charges.
“As such, and despite the number of accolades bestowed upon the former chapter by the university in recent years, the International Fraternity stands by its decision to suspend and disband the former chapter on February 17, 2017.”