Penn State ‘intended to unfairly punish’ fraternity in wake of hazing death, suit says

Penn State President Eric Barron finds details heart-wrenching and incomprehensible

Penn State President Eric Barron speaks to the media in February 2018 about the grand jury investigation into the death of Timothy Piazza
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Penn State President Eric Barron speaks to the media in February 2018 about the grand jury investigation into the death of Timothy Piazza

A lawsuit against Penn State filed on behalf of the now-shuttered Alpha Upsilon chapter of Beta Theta Pi says the university used the fraternity as a whipping post to cover up the fact that its unsafe drinking and party culture, failed policies and lack of oversight contributed to the death of Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza in February 2017.

The suit, filed Friday in in the United States Middle District Court, contends that Penn State, Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims, Senior Director of the Office of Student Conduct Danny Shaha and President Eric Barron “intended to unfairly punish” the chapter and the house by shutting down the fraternity after Piazza’s death and not allowing it to appeal the university’s decision.

Penn State swiftly banned the local chapter of Beta Theta Pi on March 30, 2017, and entered into efforts to try to repossess the house.

Piazza, who, as part of a bid acceptance ritual, consumed 18 drinks over the span of an hour and a half on the night of Feb. 2, 2017, fell down a flight of stairs and lay there for 12 hours before fraternity members decided to call 911, police said. He suffered a fractured skull, lacerated spleen and internal bleeding, among other injuries, and died at Hershey Medical Center the next morning.

Top administrators knew of the threat of drinking culture well before the night of Piazza’s death, the suit said. Sims had been “repeatedly warned” by the Penn State community and others that “the social culture among students at Penn State (universally recognized as the “number one party school in the nation”) was unsafe,” the complaint said.

Furthermore, lawyers wrote, the process of shutting down the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house by Sims, Shaha and Barron was an effort “to cover up their prior negligence in failing to adequately address the Penn State drinking culture.”

Barron 4
The Penn State administration, under the direction of President Eric Barron, left, and Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims, rolled out a series of changes to Greek life following Timothy Piazza’s death. To Piazza’s parents, however, that isn’t enough. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times, file

Sims, the suit said, did not respond to written requests to reform Penn State policies regarding drinking and all three administrators “ignored” efforts of the Greek Task Force that aimed to change the drinking culture at Penn State.

Former Penn State fraternity brother Jonathan Kanzler was sentenced in Centre County Court for alcohol violations. This video was provided by WTAJ, through a partnership with the Centre Daily Times for daily news content.

Penn State, by virtue of acting as Beta Theta Pi’s landlord and, as part of the Interfraternity Council, monitoring and subjecting to approval social events hosted by the chapter, had a “heightened” sense of duty to protect the students inside the house on the night of Feb. 2, 2017, said the suit.

“The various issues have been addressed previously, including our decision to ban Beta Theta Pi forever at Penn State,” spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email.

In response to allegations that Penn State administrators did nothing to curtail the unsafe drinking culture at the university, Powers pointed to numerous policy changes and action outlined on the university’s website.

“Penn State initiated aggressive enforcement, education and monitoring measures to address these issues well before the tragic death of Timothy Piazza, and announced additional measures following, some of which were taken in consultation with the family,” a statement from the website read, in part. “Our actions will continue, and represent our ongoing commitment to drive change in tackling binge drinking at universities.”

Piazza, whose death was ruled accidental by the Dauphin County coroner covering Hershey Medical Center, did not die as a result of underage drinking or hazing, but by tripping over a person who was not in the fraternity and falling down the stairs, “aggravating preexisting injuries and/or conditions, which ultimately resulted in fatal subdural hemorrhaging,” the suit said.

Penn State has taken numerous steps to crack down on hazing and pervasive drinking culture since Piazza’s death, including limiting the control fraternities and sororities have on their organizations, imposing harsher penalties for hazing, deferring recruitment for Greek life, capping party attendance, outlawing hard liquor and kegs, adding sober party monitors and a building a new Greek life study center.

Piazza’s parents, James and Evelyn Piazza, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in February in federal court against 28 former fraternity members claiming that their son fell because former brothers forced Piazza to consume life-threatening amounts of alcohol as part of a hazing ritual on bid acceptance night.

The new suit also contends that Penn State purchased the Beta house under fraudulent circumstances, using Piazza’s death — and Penn State’s false characterization that it was due to hazing — as a smokescreen to allow the repurchase of the house.

After several attempts to buy back the house Penn State sued in November to retain ownership of the house at 220 Burrowes Road, the CDT reported. The lawsuit is currently pending.

By banning the Alpha Upsilon chapter and refusing to allow the fraternity to review the decision or appeal it, Penn State failed to follow procedures and guidelines laid out by the Office of Student Affairs and the IFC, the suit said.

Beta Theta Pi is seeking damages above $525,000 for violation of due process and equal protection rights, negligence, conspiracy, fraud, wrongful conversion and tortious interference with contract.