Penn State

Rulings made in 2 Penn State fraternity cases

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Penn State and its largest fraternity governance organization remain at the core of two ongoing lawsuits regarding hazing.

Recent rulings out of Dauphin County are keeping both the university and the Interfraternity Council on the defense.

James Vivenzio has been vocal about his experiences at Kappa Delta Rho since 2015, when court documents revealed him to be the whistleblower who told police about KDR’s secret Facebook page documenting questionable activity. He later filed a lawsuit against Penn State, the fraternity’s national organization and local chapter, the KDR alumni group, the IFC and the Panhellenic Association.

His suit alleged a long list of offenses, including being forced to drink buckets of liquor mixed with urine, vomit and hot sauce.

Vivenzio’s suit had some claims dismissed in December 2016, but an amended complaint claiming negligence by KDR, its suspended local Zeta chapter and the alumni group and fraud by all the defendants was filed. Judge Andrew Dowling filed an opinion and order May 23 that reacted to the defendants’ preliminary objections.

“(Vivenzio) asserts that he believed, based upon defendants’ repeated assurances, that no hazing would take place...,” Dowling wrote, noting that the complaint alleges that students were “repeatedly, violently and viciously hazed.”

Dowling dismissed the fraud charge against the national KDR organization. He also dismissed the charge against the Panhellenic Association. Panhellenic represents 22 sororities on campus, while IFC represents 45 fraternities. There are two other Greek groups, the Multicultural Greek Council with 14 organizations and the National Pan-Hellenic Council with two. Dowling said the arguments failed to show specifics regarding allegations against Panhellenic. The charge was dismissed with prejudice.

Dowling did say he believed Vivenzio had “sufficiently pled the elements of fraud with respect to Penn State and IFC.”

“The Interfraternity Council takes hazing very seriously, and in partnership with Penn State, holds fraternity chapters accountable when we learn of hazing activities,” said IFC Vice President of Communications Michael Cavallaro. “When allegations of hazing arise, the Interfraternity Council immediately requires the chapter to cease and desist all activities, while the university’s student conduct office investigates, and we then determine sanctions accordingly. Through this process, we have removed several chapters from campus in recent years as a result of hazing.”

Vivenzio alleged IFC could not say it was unaware of hazing when it “was in charge of the anti-hazing hotline,” according to Dowling’s opinion. Cavallaro said this was untrue, and that line is administered by the Penn State Office of Ethics and Compliance.

University spokeswoman Lisa Powers also responded, saying the university has been focusing on the “serious challenge” of alcohol and hazing problems for more than 10 years.

“Penn State has and will continue to educate its students about these issues and will hold them accountable whenever it learns of such wrongdoing,” she said. “In every instance when Penn State is alerted to any allegations of hazing the university takes immediate action to investigate and impose sanctions.”

A second case involves the family of Marquise Braham, a Penn State Altoona student who committed suicide in 2014, an incident that his family says was due to hazing. An investigating grand jury declined to recommend charges in 2016 and then-attorney general Kathleen Kane said there was no evidence of a link to hazing.

“First and foremost, we continue to offer our condolences to the family and friends of Marquise. We mourn the loss of any member of our university community,” Powers said. “When allegations of hazing at the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity on the Penn State Altoona campus were brought to the university’s attention and investigated in 2014, severe sanctions were imposed on the fraternity and its individual members. Based on a thorough review of the issues and completion of an investigative report, the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity lost its privilege to be recognized as a fraternity and/or student organization at Penn State Altoona for a period of six years, effective Sept. 5, 2014.”

Dowling is hearing the Braham case as well. On May 19, he split the difference on two motions from Penn State in the case, giving Braham’s estate an opportunity to amend its complaint.

All of this comes as Penn State faces its most public hazing controversy, the February death of Timothy Piazza, who succumbed to head and spleen injuries after falling at a pledge party at Beta Theta Pi and going 12 hours without medical attention. The university took a series of actions against Beta Theta Pi — which has since been banned —and Greek organizations across campus.

Beta Theta Pi and 18 fraternity members are facing criminal charges in Centre County for Piazza’s death.

On Friday, Penn State’s board of trustees will hold a special meeting to further address the fraternity issues.

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce