Penn State

Penn State not prepared to be a ‘scapegoat’ on hazing issues

Penn State does not disagree with much when it comes to the recommendations from the Centre County grand jury regarding fraternity behavior and culture.

The report that accompanied it, however, is a different story.

In both the response that was included as an exhibit in the report and the statement the university issued after District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller’s Friday press conference, Penn State expressed repeatedly the tragedy of the loss of sophomore Timothy Piazza, 19, who died of injuries incurred at a Beta Theta Pi pledge party in February, and the university’s own frustration at how to stop it.

“Penn State strongly disagrees with many characterizations of the university and our record of action as presented by the district attorney, but we remain deeply committed to turning the pain and anguish of this tragedy into reforms that continue to improve the safety and well-being of our students,” President Eric Barron said in the statement.

The grand jury recommendations included things like establishing a hazing hotline and employimg Penn State spot checkers for fraternity events instead of private security ones hired by the Interfraternity Council. There is a hotline for anonymous reporting of all kinds of misconduct, and Vice President of Student Conduct Damon Sims told trustees at November’s meeting about his personal late-night trips to frat houses to check for alcohol infractions.

Parks Miller also made references to the IFC governing the fraternities. Penn State took away IFC oversight on June 2, part of an overhaul of the system that included creating a community scorecard, levying fees on Greek life members to pay for more staff to deal with issues and formalizing restrictions put in place after Piazza’s death, such as crackdowns on parties and limits on recruiting.

“...The report misunderstands or entirely disregards Penn State’s tangible commitment to improving safety, as well as public universities’ relationship with alumni boards, housing corporations and national organizations, which have oversight of these private organizations. Widespread problems of binge drinking and hazing persist at universities across the country, as tragic headlines in recent weeks have shown. However, it is not a solution to simply point an accusatory finger,” the university said.

Penn State reacted after Piazza’s death with a suspension of Beta Theta Pi, which then became a ban a month later.

The report does credit the university with some of the changes. “The grand jury agrees with and recommends implementation...” of things like delayed and shorter recruiting, the Neighborhood Enforcement Alcohol Team and increased education.

However, it cautions “the recommendations above will prove worthless without actual enforcement of violations.”

Penn State has stepped up in that area. Since February, the university has suspended several fraternities, from Sigma Alpha Mu in April to the temporary suspension of Sigma Alpha Epsilon last week. Sims said there were 13 Greek organizations suspended over the past two years.

In the response, Penn State also clapped back at allegations the university knew about more bad behavior at Beta Theta Pi than previously believed.

“Those criticisms are simply unfounded,” the university’s response read, and claims the report “omits or discredits without justification any contrary testimony” that would refute that.

Sims testified to the grand jury that Penn State had no information about hazing during a period from 2007-09 when the report alleges otherwise. The response points to metadata on a file on the chapter’s conduct from the national organization that indicate it was created in 2009 and could not have been provided to Penn State before that time.

What they do point to is two incidents the university was aware of, both of which included police investigations where the prosecution opted to not pursue or to withdraw charges.

“Alcohol abuse and hazing, the governance of private fraternities and the relationship between law enforcement and the internal disciplinary process confront academic institutions across the country. They are deep rooted and pervasive in our society. There are no easy answers,” Penn State’s response said. “We welcome advice and constructive suggestions. The university is prepared to be a leader, but not a scapegoat.”

Lori Falce: 814-235-3910, @LoriFalce