opinion

Changes at Penn State? Don't hold your breath

Ronnie Polaneczky, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Thursday, June 1, 2017, 3:01 AM

The former Penn State Beta Theta Pi at Penn State where Timothy Piazza suffered his fatal injuries.

So help me God, if I hear one more Penn State big shot declare “Never again!” about hazing, I’ll scream holy hell from the bleachers of Beaver Stadium.

Because “never again” doesn’t mean anything in Happy Valley. Not when it comes to ending the stupid, dangerous, and sadistic rites of passage that too many of the school’s Greek chapters inflict on their hopelessly willing pledges.

And that should pertain to all of those rites, not just the binge drinking that led to the February death of PSU sophomore Timothy Piazza.

But let’s stay with Piazza, since his death has rattled the school to its blue-and-white core.

Piazza wanted so badly to join Beta Theta Pi that he guzzled his way into a stupor during pledge-night activities and died from injuries he sustained while hammered beyond reason.

On Friday, Penn State’s 38-member board of trustees will meet to discuss possible changes to its Greek system to prevent another fate like his.

PSU has not said what those changes might be. But I have little faith that the board's actions will have staying power. As my colleague Susan Snyder has reported, at least 14 of PSU’s trustees were in fraternities or sororities as undergraduates – most of them at Penn State – and at least a handful of them have children who were members.

They spoke glowingly of their Greek-life experience. Will personal bias prevent them from seeing that Piazza’s death was a tragedy waiting to happen?

I mean, it’s not as if PSU didn't know what it had on its hands.

“We know that students in Greek life self-report excessive drinking that is four times higher than the average student,” university president Eric Barron wrote in an open letter to PSU’s Greek community after Piazza died. “We know that the vast majority of sexual assaults are associated with alcohol and that an association with Greek life yields a sexual assault victimization rate that is 50 percent higher than the average student.”

Yet it took Piazza’s death for PSU to impose what Barron described as “new, more aggressive measures.”

Including this one: “No more than 10 socials with alcohol per semester will be permitted for each chapter, a reduction from the current limit of 45, which was established by Penn State’s Interfraternity Council.”

Wait, 45 times per semester? That’s about four a week. How could the university not know it was just a matter of time before some kid's luck ran out?

The school punished misbehaving Greek groups in the past by closing their chapters or forcing them to vacate their houses, Barron noted. And he was stunned that those actions didn’t serve as a deterrent to other frats, especially a “model” one like Beta Theta Pi, which had strict guidelines – wink-wink – regarding drinking.

We now know that Beta Theta Pi wasn’t a model fraternity at all. It was a speakeasy. Maybe they all are. Yet that analogy seems lost on trustee and 1968 PSU grad Robert Capretto.

“I’ve heard all kinds of dramatic … responses from people on what should be done” to rein in the Greek houses, he told Snyder. But “you really have to assess it. Somebody drives down Main Street in Philadelphia — a drunk driver — and kills somebody, you can’t close all the bars, hotels, and restaurants in Philadelphia.”

Well, no. But you can shutter the unlicensed bars run by kids, can't you? You know -- the places not overseen by the Liquor Control Board and subjected to its niggling rules and regulations.

Licensed bars must card drinkers, hold bartenders accountable for knowing when a patron has had too much – and then not serve him another drop. They must adhere to room-occupancy limits so things don’t get out of hand. Observe a last call that's actually a last call.

Too many of PSU's Greek houses operate like live-in bars, whose young barkeeps and patrons have none of the wisdom or oversight that might protect them from their worst impulses.

If the board's trustees won't crack down on PSU's fraternities and sororities, the least they should do is own the situation they've created and bring in experienced tavern owners to teach the kids how to run their bars the way the pros do.

Because this "never again" stuff is getting old.

Ronnie Polaneczky, STAFF COLUMNIST

Read full story: Changes at Penn State? Don't hold your breath

More Coverage:

PSU frat alum welcomes fewer parties, but not delayed recruitment

Ties to Greek life run deep on Penn State board deciding fate of sororities, fraternities