When Tim Piazza died, a family in mourning was thrust into the spotlight and a university was put in a harsh glare. It has created tension.
Penn State President Eric Barron has talked about the hazing issue being a national problem, not something that is just happening at Penn State. The Piazzas agree, but they see issues at Penn State within the overall dilemma.
One is about the response.
Penn State has taken action.
Beta Theta Pi was suspended almost immediately after the 19-year-old’s February 2017 death, but within weeks that became a permanent ban. The university locked down Greek-life activities on campus for the rest of the semester.
By June, the board passed changes to how fraternities and sororities operate on campus, most significantly moving oversight for discipline out of the hands of student-run organizations to the university administration.
But Barron and Vice President for Student Affairs Damon Sims have expressed one problem over and over, saying there’s not much more they can do since the houses are privately owned and mostly off campus.
The fraternities have more problems than sororities because they have houses. Barron has said he doesn’t want to push them to a point where the fraternities opt to shrug off university recognition and take their organizations — and their parties — underground where the school will have zero control.
It’s an argument that doesn’t hold water for the Piazzas.
Evelyn Piazza’s evidence? Bills.
“Dues appear on your tuition bill. You can’t start classes until your dues are paid. That doesn’t sound like they are separate, does it?” she said.
That is backed up by the account of one Beta Theta Pi mom who contacted the Centre Daily Times last February after the fraternity members were forced to leave the house. She cited the bill from the bursar’s office charging $5,221 for rent and dues.
The Piazzas also lay a lot of blame at the feet of Sims, who has had supervision of fraternities since he took office in 2008. That was the year before Joseph Dado died in another alcohol-related fall. Two fraternities — Phi Gamma Delta and Alpha Tau Omega — were charged in connection with that incident. One of the two individuals charged was a fraternity member.
Then there was the Kappa Delta Rho incident in 2015, when a student revealed a secret Facebook page that documented illicit behavior. KDR is still suspended for that, but the fraternity is also involved in a lawsuit with James Vivenzio, who claims he was subjected to hazing, including being forced to drink human waste.
“I don’t believe anything will get done with (Sims) in the lead,” Jim Piazza said.
The university is reacting to a lot of fraternity situations. Sims himself has been involved in late night visits to frat parties to monitor compliance. Several fraternities have been suspended since the Beta ban.
Barron maintains confidence in his vice president.
“As I have shared with Mr. Piazza, no one has worked harder to encourage safety in Greek life than Damon Sims. The university is making significant and important progress in the implementation of broad ranging safety initiatives. Damon is respected by his peers nationally, and universities are seeking him out for advice on our reforms,” Barron said.
The couple has issues with Barron, too, though. Jim Piazza said he has asked the president 15 times to meet with the trustees, asked for an inventory of the measures Penn State implemented after his son’s death and a current state of where they all stand. They want to be involved in the change that happens.
“I think Penn State wants it to go away. I think they want us to go away. We’re not going away. We can’t go away. I’d like to be part of the Penn State solution. They won’t let us,” he said.
In fact, the university’s response is part of what has driven the family to seek out the media in Tim’s name.
“We were on vacation with our other son and we saw President Barron on TV,” Jim Piazza said, calling the statements he was hearing “ridiculous.”
On the same day, he learned about another Penn State family who lost their son, Marquise Braham, in 2014. That was when grief crystallized into action.
“I called my attorney and said, ‘We’re ready to go,’ ” he said. “We blitzed the market.”
The Piazzas have gotten out in front of cameras on “The Today Show” and news channels, sat with reporters for local papers and The Atlantic. They have spoken out often and stood next to then Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller when she announced charges or made statements.
“Other universities want to have us talk. We’re speaking at Bucknell in March. You don’t think we would be impactful at new parents weekend?” Jim Piazza said. “We sat there and heard, ‘We don’t haze at Penn State.’ It’s not true.”
More than anything, they want Barron and the trustees to do something they haven’t done themselves.
“We think they should have to watch the videos,” Evelyn Piazza said.
The university responded to that request, something noted in a letter from the family Thursday, saying Sims did watch it as part of Penn State’s investigation and that lead to the banning of Beta Theta Pi.
“President Barron and the board leadership are willing to watch the video, with heavy hearts, both to respect the Piazzas’ wishes and determine whether anything in it will aid our continued efforts, should it be made available to us. We recognize the painful nature of the content, and respect the family’s desire not to view it,” university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.
Some people say the university’s changes don’t matter, and really no changes matter — that fraternities will always be the same and hazing in some form is a reality of college life.
The Piazzas don’t buy that.
“If the students start seeing people charged with crimes, people going to jail, things will change,” Jim Piazza said. “Parents will be all over that. They will make it stop.”
More than anything, they just want people to call it out for what it is.
“You said it once,” Jim Piazza said to his wife. “Call it abuse and something gets done. Call it hazing and it’s a tradition.”