Penn State frat death raises questions for grieving parents

Tim Piazza,19, died after falling down stairs at a fraternity house on pledge night.

Tim Piazza had instructions: Dress in jacket and tie. Report at 9:07 p.m.

It was pledge night at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity on Pennsylvania State University’s campus, and Piazza was a candidate.

“They’re going to get me f----- up,” he told his girlfriend in a phone message before he left for the Feb. 2 event, according to his parents.

Two hours later, the 19-year-old sophomore engineering major from Lebanon, N.J., fell down stairs at the fraternity where he would remain for nearly 12 hours before anyone called -- too late -- for help.

His parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, were left with the unthinkable – saying a final goodbye to their strapping 6-foot-2, 205-pound son, who had suffered a collapsed lung, a ruptured spleen, and “non-recoverable” traumatic brain injury.

At the Hershey Medical Center, where their son was flown for treatment, the Piazzas leaned close and told him they loved him, as a tear rolled down his cheek.

“You want to know that he heard you,” Jim Piazza, 55, an accountant, said. “But on the other hand, if he heard us, he knew he was dying. So, I don’t know which one is better.”

A grand jury investigation into their son’s death is nearing completion, and the university has already permanently banned Beta Theta Pi, citing evidence of “forced drinking, hazing and other illegal activity.”

The Piazzas, who have hired Philadelphia attorney Tom Kline, are determined that everyone who had a hand in their son’s death is held accountable, and that includes Penn State.

“This is going to be the next Penn State tragedy, this whole frat system and their lack of policing it,” said Kline, who represented a victim abused by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and secured a multimillion-dollar settlement from Penn State. “There’s every indication that this was a brutal horrible, hazing incident, the likes of which should never be allowed on a campus of an American university.”

The 46,000-student University Park campus since 2015 had a task force, headed by Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs, looking into reports of hazing, underage drinking, sexual assaults, and other problems within the fraternity system.

But the task force issued no report and the university took no public action on major issues until after the Piazzas’ son died.

“I believe if he had taken some meaningful actions,” Jim Piazza said of Sims, “our son would be alive.”

Sims in response said members of the task force, including students and local residents, could not agree on important issues, such as the size and frequency of parties.

"With the aggressive measures we have [now] taken, Penn State has declared enough is enough," Sims said. "The university's senior leadership has drawn these lines, and we are determined to hold accountable any group that defies them."

Penn State last month announced changes to its Greek system, including fewer parties, a delay in recruitment to second-semester freshman year, and greater monitoring. In announcing the new rules, Penn State released startling statistics: Members of fraternities and sororities – roughly 18 percent of the undergraduate enrollment -- are four times as likely to be heavy drinkers as the general student population. Sorority women, the university said, are 50 percent more likely than other females to be sexually assaulted, and fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than non-fraternity men.

“They already knew this stuff, but they didn’t act on it,” Piazza said.

Penn State has asserted that its control over fraternities, which are private associations often operating in off-campus housing, is "profoundly limited." Universities around the country have struggled with how best to monitor and enforce rules within their fraternity systems, and Penn State has tried a number of approaches even before establishing the task force.

Piazza didn't buy it: "Expel anyone ... who isn't leading a proper Penn State life."

The Piazzas also were perplexed to learn that a 56-year-old Penn State assistant athletic director and head trainer for the football team was living at the fraternity. Tim Bream, a former head trainer for the Chicago Bears, was listed as an adviser to Beta Theta Pi in university records, but the university said it was not aware that he lived at the house and knew of no other similar arrangements on campus.

Though there was no indication he was at the party, Bream was somewhere in the large rambling fraternity house, home to nearly 40 frat members, that night, Jim Piazza said, citing police.

“This individual’s job was to be an adviser and watch over these students,” Piazza said. “He had to know there was alcohol going on. He had to know there was hazing going on.”

Bream, who was employed by Beta Theta Pi as an adviser, declined comment, referring a reporter to the university’s office of communications.

“Mr. Bream's living arrangement would have been a privately arranged matter between Mr. Bream and the fraternity's alumni board,” the university said in a statement.

Beta Theta Pi declined comment on Bream's role.

Piazza said he emailed Penn State president Eric Barron, asking why the athletic official remains employed.

“It’s offensive to us, and it’s offensive to Tim’s memory,” Piazza said.

Barron emailed back: “Many of our employees have second jobs and do not inform us that they are working elsewhere. He was not at the house as a Penn State employee but through contract with the national fraternity.”

Bream, a 1983 Penn State graduate and Gettysburg native, returned to his alma mater in 2012.

It’s unclear when Bream was hired by the fraternity or what his job responsibilities entailed. But his connection to the organization was obvious. He joined as an undergraduate.

Among Penn State’s 45 fraternities, Beta Theta Pi --  “Men of Principle,” as its website declares --was considered among the best. With a 130-year history on Penn State's campus, the fraternity was named Chapter of the Year twice since 2010.

The Piazzas believe the fraternity’s stellar reputation attracted their son, a redhead who played football at Hunterdon Central Regional High School.

Tim Piazza loved to help people, his parents said. In high school, he counseled others not to abuse drugs or alcohol and served as an ambassador, showing new students around. He had signed up to donate bone marrow after watching an uncle battle leukemia. His career goal was to build prosthetic devices for children and soldiers.

The Piazzas were thrilled their son chose Penn State.

Neither were alumni, but Jim Piazza was a longtime fan of the football team. The couple's oldest son, Michael, is a junior at the school. Tim Piazza, who had his choice of Villanova, Lehigh, or Penn State, followed.

Michael never wanted to join a frat. Tim was different. He called his mother, Evelyn, 48, also an accountant, days before the pledge party to tell her how excited he was. The Piazzas said their son’s roommates said he was sober before he left for the party. Police, Jim Piazza said, shared some details of what happened next.

“We know there was heavy drinking. We know it was part of a hazing process. We know his blood alcohol content was very high. We don’t know how high. We know he fell down stairs. We know they put him on a couch. And we know no one called for help.”

The next morning, unaware that his son was lying on a couch dying, Jim Piazza met with a Rutgers student who wanted career guidance. The student said he was in a fraternity, and Piazza shared that his son was pledging one.

“They haze pretty hard at Penn State,” the young man told him. “You know people die from hazing.”

Within hours of that conversation, Evelyn Piazza got a call from their son Michael, who had been searching for his brother the morning after the party and found him at the local hospital.

No university officials came to the wake or funeral, Jim Piazza said. Neither did the fraternity brothers, as far as they knew.

The Piazzas went to Penn State for a vigil for their son. Jim Piazza visited Barron and pushed a copy of the funeral booklet across the table.

“You have the opportunity to be a model for the rest of the country,” he told the president.

He credited Barron with doing what he asked in terms of permanently revoking recognition of the frat and banning alcohol at fraternity parties for the rest of the semester.

The Piazzas hope that the investigation yields answers and that those responsible are punished.

“We would like to be a part of the solution,” Jim Piazza said. “We will personally go and talk to every frat there.”

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