In a Friday news conference, Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller decried the actions of Penn State relating to the death of Timothy Piazza while presenting grand jury recommendations to prevent such an incident from happening again.
The grand jury report and recommendations came after nearly 11 months of investigation and evidence, Parks Miller said, including testimony by Penn State staff and former students who she said experienced a culture of hazing similar to Piazza.
Piazza, 19, was a Beta Theta Pi pledge who died in early February after a bid acceptance event at the fraternity house. More than 20 individuals, as well as the Penn State chapter of the fraternity, were charged for the death, from involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment to hazing and furnishing.
“The grand jury frankly was appalled at the boldness of what happened in that house,” Parks Miller said.
They learned that excessive drinking dominated other fraternities at Penn State and not just Beta Theta Pi. She noted that Penn State had closed Beta Theta Pi in 2008 for excessive drinking due to the actions of the national chapter and not the local fraternity, allowing them to reopen a year later with no investigation.
According to Parks Miller, the fraternities are governed by the Interfraternity Council, which is made up of students who decide on the flow of information to the university. She referred to the council as a “joke and a catastrophe,” saying there is no oversight into the council who is expected to be responsible for themselves.
The IFC is just one of the four student organizations that sits over the 76 fraternities and sororities at the University Park campus. It is the one that had oversight for Beta Theta Pi, and for most of the fraternities.
However, Penn State took over the misconduct and adjudication process that was previously the domain of organizations such as the IFC or the Panhellenic Association in June, the CDT previously reported. Penn State announced “aggressive” action regarding alcohol abuse in March.
Parks Miller spoke about the IFC’s risk management policies in the form of a contracted private security firm called St. Moritz. Representatives are asked to tour each fraternity social and check a number of simple rules: if the fraternity members are wearing wristbands, if loose bottles of alcohol are being passed around, if snacks are visible from the bar and so on.
According to Parks Miller, testimony by St. Moritz employees members indicated that they were made to wait outside for several minutes before being led on a very narrow tour, giving fraternity members ample time to hide infractions.
And any paperwork afterward, she said, was passed up to the IFC to be done with what they pleased. When she subpoenaed the documents, they were not available.
During the Beta Theta Pi bid acceptance night, two of these St. Moritz “checkers” could be seen on video briefly touring the scene. Video indicated some writing was done on a clipboard, but the documents have never been presented as evidence, indicating that they may not exist anymore.
The grand jury report claims that the history of hazing at Beta Theta Pi extends back at least multiple semesters, referring back to current and former Beta members who testified to alcohol gauntlets during their respective pledge events.
According to the report, the jury heard testimony from former Beta member Donald Abbey, who “became a significant donor to both the (Penn State) football team and the fraternity.” Abbey would eventually become invested in an attempt to restore the fraternity house, the report said, investing $8.5 million into the project and making an attempt to change “the culture from one of partying to one of principle.”
Abbey’s efforts, however, were “thwarted” by the drinking culture and resistance to change from the fraternity and the university, the report said. Abbey testified to a “protect your buddy” mentality at the fraternity when questioned.
Abbey filed suit against the board of directors of the fraternity’s housing corporation, claiming funds that are owed to him, and that the board allowed a pattern of conduct that contributed to Piazza’s death.
The grand jury heard testimony from James Vivenzio, the report said, who had previously been the center of a whistleblower case involving Kappa Delta Rho in March 2015. Penn State suspended KDR at that time regarding allegations of a private Facebook page sharing photos of “unsuspecting victims.”
Vivenzio told the grand jury about his own fraternity experiences, the report said, claiming that “at least half of the fraternities on campus engage in hazing activity, although some are reputed to be worse than others.” He stated that fraternity activities regularly included alcohol and drinking games, and included physical activities that drove the pledges to exhaustion.
Vivenzio spoke at the news conference, saying he was “flabbergasted” at how Penn State handled the information it was receiving about the fraternities. He said he “tried to do what he could do to save lives,” including bringing evidence of abuse before Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life Director Danny Shaha, who reportedly “scoffed and said there was nothing he could do.”
“This is Joe Paterno all over again,” Vivenzio told reporters, referencing allegations that the former Nittany Lions coach knew about sexual abuse by his assistant, Jerry Sandusky. “Hopefully we’re never here again due to deaths of Penn State students due to hazing.”
Reporters also heard from Rich Braham, father of Penn State Altoona student Marquis Braham, who committed suicide in 2014. Braham testified that his son had been elected as secretary of the campus’ Phi Sigma Kappa chapter in 2014.
Following his son’s death, Braham testified to piecing together his son’s college life, the grand jury report said, discovering evidence of excessive drinking and hazing that Braham believed led to his son’s death rather than “returning to Penn State and meting out the hazing that so tortured him months before.”
In his statements at the news conference, Braham commended Parks Miller for her work with the grand jury, noting that the Blair County district attorney at the time of his son’s death showed little interest in pursuing action. He referred to the district attorney as “fearless, committed and focused on the victims.”
“No one should die just because they want to join a fraternity,” he said. “It’s not acceptable.”
In its recommendations, the grand jury advises enacting new legislation to amend the hazing law, suggesting to designate it as “Tim’s Law.” The grand jury recommends grading hazing as a multi-tiered offense, rising from the level of a second-degree misdemeanor up to a first-degree felony in cases that result in the death of a victim.
Right now, hazing defaults as a second-degree misdemeanor.
The grand jury also called for furnishing alcohol to minors to also be graded as a multi-tiered offense, from a third-degree misdemeanor up to a first-degree felony again if it results in the death of the victim. Furnishing charges currently default as a third-degree misdemeanor.
Penn State should establish a pledge’s bill of rights, the grand jury recommends, to be published in every student handbook outlining acceptable and unacceptable behavior and outlining criminal penalties for hazing, the university standards and the types of behavior that will not be tolerated.
The grand jury called for the establishment of a 24-hour hazing hotline to anonymously report hazing activities and be directed to services for hazing-related damages. The report said Penn State should strengthen its own hazing policy and adopt a “zero tolerance” stance on the behavior and to enact mandated reporting on any behavior discovered.
Penn State does have a webpage with links to report hazing, and a general compliance and misconduct hotline (1-800-560-1637), which would include hazing.
“We’ve gotten calls from other places as we’re doing this case — other states and other institutions — so I’m hopeful that it can be a model for places outside Pennsylvania,” Parks Miller said. “But right now ... it’s a report recommendation to Penn State. They can say ‘sounds like a good idea, we’re in,’ or ‘forget it.’ ”