Crime

Penn State ‘failed our son and failed us,’ Timothy Piazza’s parents say

No parent should have to go through this, Jim Piazza says

Jim Piazza speaks about the death of his son, Timothy Piazza. Piazza passed away in February after injuries from a party at Beta Theta Pi at Penn State.
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Jim Piazza speaks about the death of his son, Timothy Piazza. Piazza passed away in February after injuries from a party at Beta Theta Pi at Penn State.

The problems that killed Timothy Piazza were not something that just happened on a Thursday night in February, his parents say.

In a letter to the Penn State board of trustees, Evelyn and James Piazza said they are only starting to learn that “Penn State has a long history of harsh hazing, excessive drinking and sexual assaults in its Greek life.”

The family of Marquise Braham, a New York student who committed suicide in 2014 amid claims of hazing at Penn State Altoona, is suing the university. So is James Vivenzio, the whistleblower who revealed the behavior at University Park’s Kappa Delta Rho that got the chapter a three-year suspension. The now banned Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity where Timothy Piazza was pledging when he fell at a party and lay without medical attention for 12 hours, received a three-year suspension in 2009.

Over the past 20 years, 34 of Penn State’s 53 active fraternities have had criminal charges, mostly for furnishing alcohol.

“Penn State also has a long history of looking the other way at difficult situations,” the Piazzas wrote.

There is no specific reference there, but perhaps coincidentally, Penn State’s former president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz were slated for sentencing Friday in Harrisburg for endangering the welfare of children, criminal charges that came out of the grand jury investigation of retired Nittany Lion football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, now serving 30 to 60 years for child sex crimes.

The Piazzas asked the board to “do the right things, not the popular things,” saying “Our son died on your watch because of ignorance and denial by Penn State” and begged the university to “take the lead.”

“As we have said all along, we would welcome the opportunity to be part of the solution, but that can’t happen with the BOT’s and the administration’s acceptance of responsibility,” they wrote. “We can lock arms or we can butt heads as we move forward. This is completely your choice, not ours. We have stated our preference.”

Penn State has taken a series of steps. Immediately after Piazza’s death from brain and spleen injuries, the university suspended Beta Theta Pi and instituted a new set of rules for Greek organizations moving forward. In March, after its own investigation, the university came back with stricter sanctions, banning the offending fraternity and tightening the restrictions on other fraternities and sororities.

Break these rules, said Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims, and you will be suspended. Sigma Alpha Mu did, and they were suspended in April.

The Piazzas want more.

They want the university to work with them as they campaign to strengthen hazing laws in Pennsylvania. Hazing is already a crime, as 12 of the 18 Beta Theta Pi members charged with criminal activities in connection with the incident have since discovered. The Piazzas want it to be considered as a felony in some circumstances. They also want a longer statute of limitations, and a Good Samaritan law that would allow someone to call for help, without risk, in a situation like their son’s fall.

They want Penn State’s own rules about Greek organizations, hazing and alcohol to be more specific and strictly enforced.

And then there is the punitive action. The family wants two specific people fired, Sims and the Beta Theta Pi adviser, Nittany Lions head trainer and Penn State assistant athletic director Tim Bream.

“He lived in the fraternity house as their adviser and he was there the night of this pledge/hazing event. There is no way he didn’t know there was an illegal hazing event with alcohol going on and because he lived there for years, there is no way he didn’t know there was a history of illegal hazing and excessive drinking going on,” the Piazzas wrote. “He turned a blind eye for years. Had he reported this behavior, just once, our son’s live would have been saved.”

They also asked for the expulsion of any students bearing culpability, including those not charged criminally, such as the women of Trilogy, whose web page lists them as a Penn State “special interest organization.”

“Inaction against the students is hypocritical,” they wrote. “What are you waiting for? It’s time to act.”

No action against any individuals was announced after the trustees meeting. However, Provost Nick Jones did say that some students are “still going through the discipline process.”

“There are many things still playing out,” he said.

The university responded to the letter with a statement.

“Our deepest sympathies continue to go out to the Piazza family. This was a horrific tragedy and our focus is on reaching solutions to the complex issues of hazing, dangerous drinking and other misconduct that plague fraternities here and around the country. University leaders have taken aggressive actions to date and they will meet tomorrow to discuss additional measures to advance student safety,” Penn State said.

Trustees meet Friday to discuss a “comprehensive set of recommendations.” President Eric Barron was slated to speak afterward.

The Interfraternity Council — the student governing board of 45 of the university fraternities, including Beta Theta Pi — also released a statement.

“As student leaders, the Interfraternity Council is committed to addressing the critical issues in our community head on. The IFC has worked with alumni, national fraternities and chapter leadership to develop a plan that elevates standards, education, transparency, and oversight to enhance safety in our community,” the IFC executive board said in a release. “We presented our plan to university administrators to discuss at their meeting and hope to work with them in partnership on implementation. We believe lasting change will be best achieved through working together.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce

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