Too Light a Punishment?

Advocates are disheartened that a judge has reduced the criminal sentences of former Penn State fraternity brothers involved in one of the most horrific hazing cases in memory.

May 22, 2019
 
Timothy Piazza with his parents

Two years ago, a local district attorney started aggressively pursuing charges against the fraternity brothers who contributed to the death of a Pennsylvania State University freshman, Timothy Piazza.

Piazza, a Beta Theta Pi pledge, died after rounds of heavy drinking at a party in February 2017, at one point in the night tumbling down 15 steps. The university sanctioned the fraternity and Greek life broadly, and combined with the authorities' push, antihazing activists heralded the response as a new era of hazing crackdowns.

Most of the former fraternity members -- who pleaded guilty to misdemeanors ranging from hazing to furnishing alcohol to a minor -- still await sentencing. But a judge has allowed three former brothers he initially sentenced to jail to instead serve their time on house arrest.

Experts in fraternity life and hazing said the decision showed that despite more college administrative attention around these issues, the courts are still likely to be more lenient.

“This is obviously dispiriting for those who thought this is the ideal case to make a stand and to signal that hazing is intolerable,” said John Hechinger, senior editor at Bloomberg News and author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.

Piazza was rushing Beta Theta Pi -- the process of joining the fraternity -- at the time of his death. After drinking heavily, he fell down a flight of basement stairs and was knocked unconscious. Fraternity members carried him to the couch but ignored his need for medical care, instead trying to wake him by splashing liquid on his face and hitting him. At one point, Piazza tried to get up but struck his head on an iron railing, which left him with significant head trauma. He bled for hours internally before dying two days later.

Fraternity members did not call 911 until the morning after the party.

The case inspired a national antihazing crusade, in part led by Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn. They pushed for and eventually succeeded in getting antihazing reform passed in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. Institutions now need to publish a report on hazing, and any incident that results in severe injury or death is classified as a felony. Piazza’s death was a particularly effective rallying point because of his story: he was young, affable and a high school football star -- and the night had been documented on surveillance footage, giving the public a gruesome picture of what had happened.

“This action signifies important movement in an ongoing conversation to identify meaningful solutions that create transformational change,” Eric Barron, Penn State’s president, said in a statement after the law was passed. “Unfortunately, hazing continues to plague universities across the country, and we hope this law will serve as a model for other state legislatures to effect critically needed national reform. Penn State has been, and continues to be, committed to addressing this serious national issue.”

After Piazza’s death, Barron kicked Beta Theta Pi off campus and postponed rushing, which many advocates generally deem a positive step. Banning fraternities or sororities outright is often not effective, they told Inside Higher Ed.

Magisterial District Judge Brian K. Marshall initially sentenced three former Penn State fraternity members, Luke Visser, Michael Bonatucci and Joshua Kurczewski, to jail time ranging between 30 days and nine months. Many antihazing activists cheered the sentences as potentially severe enough to make fraternity members take notice and change their behavior.

He later reduced the sentence -- Kurczewski to 90 days on house arrest, Bonatucci to 30 days and Visser to 45 days.

Local media reported that Marshall said that some of the fraternity members were remorseful for their actions.

Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College who has written broadly about hazing, said that the Piazza case reminded him of an early hazing death, Isaac William Rand, a University of North Carolina student, who died in 1912 after his throat was cut with a broken bottle. Rand’s death came with promises of change around hazing and a major media blitz, but little was accomplished, Nuwer said.

Nuwer said that hazing isn’t often looked at as a homicide -- that judges still look at the episodes as “unfortunate accidents” that involve students with no prior criminal record. Often, hazing investigations take quite a bit of time, which allows the bad actors to build up a good defense in a criminal case, he said.

Even if tougher laws, such as Pennsylvania’s, are passed, they won’t do much unless they’re enforced properly, Nuwer said.

Texas and Florida have considered bills that would toughen rules around hazing. Florida’s would make hazing a felony if it resulted in permanent injury and gives immunity to people who provide medical assistance or call 911 for help. The Texas legislation modifies the definition of hazing, adding that coercing someone to drink alcohol or use a drug is now considered hazing. Universities would also need to publish summaries on hazing, and students would be protected from liability if they reported a hazing episode.

But judges often don’t understand hazing or the psychology behind it, said Gentry McCreary, the chief executive officer of Dyad Strategies, which consults with colleges and universities to reshape their Greek life systems.

In the Piazza case, no one physically forced him to consume alcohol, but the “need to belong” is a particularly powerful motivator, McCreary said. Just like with sexual assault, in which police, judges and prosecutors have been taught trauma-informed interviewing, so should they need to learn about the nuances of hazing, he said.

The new laws are helpful because prosecuting students under manslaughter can be complex, McCreary said. The standards for those charges can be significantly higher, so making the hazing laws clearer helps, he said.

“We continue to see this as a challenge -- that it’s hard to hold people accountable,” McCreary said.

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