Charging a fraternity with a crime is not something that happens every day.
But it is something a lot of Penn State fraternities have seen happen.
A Centre County investigating grand jury recommended charges against Beta Theta Pi last week in the February death of Timothy Piazza, 19, after he was invited to pledge the fraternity and attended a party where he fell and sustained injuries that would kill him two days later.
Beta Theta Pi is facing some of the most serious charges of any Penn State fraternity, including involuntary manslaughter, 50 counts of hazing and 96 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors.
To put those numbers into perspective, there are 53 fraternities at Penn State and 45 of them fall under the Interfraternity Council’s regulation. Of those 45, 34 have had criminal charges in the past 20 years. The total number of their court cases is 103, most of which have one or two counts each.
Beta Theta Pi has been in court before. In 2008, the Alpha Upsilon chapter had three separate cases brought between April and September. The fraternity was suspended by the university in February 2009 for hazing and alcohol violations.
Both Penn State President Eric Barron and Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims have said that Beta Theta Pi would have been one of the fraternities they pointed to as the best on campus before Piazza’s death, the fraternity’s subsequent suspension in the days after and the ultimate excommunication that came when the university pulled recognition permanently in March.
The numbers show that the fraternity was definitely not one of the most frequent offenders on campus. Beta Sigma Beta has had seven brushes with the law, as did Delta Chi. Phi Kappa Theta had six. Phi Kappa Psi and Sigma Pi both had five. Of the other 29 fraternities with charges, most have two or three over the 20-year period.
The list only covers currently operating and recognized fraternities, meaning that Beta Theta Pi and the two other most prominent suspensions aren’t on that list.
Kappa Delta Rho was suspended for three years in 2015 after pledge James Vivenzio told police and Penn State about a secret Facebook group that documented activities illegal or questionable activities, including hazing and alcohol use. KDR had a 2013 guilty plea to furnishing alcohol as well as a federal lawsuit for breaking into another fraternity that resulted in a fight.
In April, Sigma Alpha Mu was suspended for at least two years for violating alcohol rules Penn State put in place after Piazza’s death for all fraternities. SAM has a list of six other criminal cases in Centre County, as well as being pulled into civil litigation.
“We recognize the problems of the past and are committed to addressing critical issues head on,” said Michael Cavallaro, vice president of communications for the IFC. “We have formed stakeholder working groups tasked with developing increased community standards and enhancing student safety. The best way to shift culture is for students, alumni and the university to work together.”
According to Barron, the discipline process has been a challenge as they are private groups and most of the fraternity houses are on private property, leaving the revocation charter recognition as the only punishment for the organizations.
“University recognition is essentially what allows fraternity members to exist under one roof — even if on private property. The borough of State College has an ordinance that prohibits housing for organizations that are not recognized by the university,” said Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers.
University administrators have also had issues in recent years when they “did not agree with the IFC’s decision-making and implemented a stronger response.”
“The university has been working on a continuous basis to improve the Greek-life system at Penn State, and — given the complex situation in which fraternities and sororities are private organizations — we have worked hard to partner with the IFC and Panhellenic to convince Greek-life leaders to self-police and self-regulate adverse behavior. However, these measures did not drive enough meaningful change. Penn State has had more than a decade of focus on these issues, including the introduction of educational, enforcement and other programs, as well as policies that clearly spell out consequences,” Power said.
“Moving forward, the university is strongly hoping to work with the many parties involved, including Greek-life student active members, national fraternity organizations, alumni boards and parents in order to have a viable Greek life system in the future,” she said.
Only one Panhellenic Council sorority, Pi Beta Phi, has a charge. It’s just one, from 2005.
None of the organizations governed by the Multicultural Greek Council or the National Pan-Hellenic Council have any.