Crashing the party: How Penn State monitors frats

Party-goers arrive at a Penn State fraternity party on the Saturday night after homecoming in early November. (WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Inquirer)

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – It was around 1 a.m. when six men, two carrying clipboards, marched up the walkway toward the fraternity house.

Near the door, a temporary fence, as well as a few frat brothers acting as sentries, corralled the queue of students waiting to enter. But the party was already crowded; newcomers were turned away.

“It sucks!” quipped one young man as he trudged off into the cold, dark November night.

But the men with clipboards and their companions entered the house. They took note of partygoers toting water bottles filled with some sort of liquid. They knew the packed first floor suggested an almost certain crowd-size violation.

“We’ll document that,” said one of the observers, Danny Shaha.

For the moment, the problem remedied itself: The house fire alarm sounded, sending dozens of young women and men streaming out the front door, many undoubtedly in search of another party.

Shaha, a Pennsylvania State University administrator, and the other members of his group had the same goal, but with a different purpose: to make sure what’s supposed to be a fun weekend night on and around Frat Row doesn’t turn dangerous, or even deadly.

As at many campuses, especially those in isolated college towns, the Greek system is an integral part of student life in State College. About 17 percent of the student body, or about 7,000 students, typically belong to the 76 fraternities and sororities. On any given weekend night, hundreds more bounce from party to party at fraternity houses clustered on Frat Row and nearby streets.

But the death in February of sophomore Tim Piazza — allegedly furnished with 18 drinks in 81 minutes as part of a hazing ritual at the now-defunct Beta Theta Pi fraternity — put a new spotlight both on the parties and Penn State’s responsibility for monitoring them.

The job of the so-called social checkers — monitors tasked with ensuring that the parties and Greek members didn’t run afoul of university guidelines or the law — used to belong to a private security firm contracted and overseen by the student-run Interfraternity Council.

Piazza’s death, however, brought renewed scrutiny on the setup. Two social checkers were said to have visited the Beta Theta Pi house the night of his alleged hazing, minutes before he fell down the basement stairs and became seriously injured. And Penn State administrators have since acknowledged they didn’t always learn of violations observed by the social checkers. So earlier this year, Penn State took over the monitoring.

Camera icon William Thomas Cain
Danny Shaha (left), Penn State’s interim assistant vice president for student rights and responsibilities, talks with Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs, during visits to fraternity houses on Nov. 11.  WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN

About 20 staff members from student affairs — plus six full- and part-time monitors — have been taking turns patrolling the Frat Row area on party nights. They look for loud parties or lines of students outside houses, then knock on doors and enter, seeking evidence of underage drinking or crowds that exceed capacity rules or are too raucous. Most frats are still banned from serving alcohol at social functions — a change initiated after Piazza’s death — so they also look for that.

Violations earn the frats sanctions ranging from probation to a ban on hosting socials to more serious penalties — revocation of a chapter’s recognition, temporarily or permanently. Offenses chronicled by social checkers since Piazza’s death have led to the suspension of two Penn State fraternities,  Pi Lambda Phi and Sigma Alpha Mu. Eleven others are on suspension; more than 40 other active chapters remain.

The university’s crackdown comes as schools nationwide wrestle with what seems like a fresh surge in a decades-old problem.

In September, a freshman pledge at Louisiana State University died after excessive drinking during an alleged fraternity hazing and — eerily reminiscent of Piazza’s case — being left on a couch.

Florida State University, formerly led by Penn State president Eric Barron, shut down its fraternity system last month after the death of a pledge. More recently, Ohio State University suspended most fraternities as it investigates infractions at many of them.

“We are not under any illusions that we can do more than we can do,” Damon Sims, Penn State’s vice president for student affairs, said as he stood outside a frat after midnight on Nov. 11, “but it is clearly an earnest attempt to quiet some of the most serious problems we’ve seen here and everywhere else in the country.”

Camera icon William Thomas Cain
Danny Shaha and Damon Sims enter a fraternity house during a Saturday night monitoring session. WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN

Heightened scrutiny

Penn State’s efforts seem to have had an impact.

When Shaha, interim assistant vice president for student rights and responsibilities, and his counterparts arrived at the Phi Sigma Kappa party late on Nov. 11 – the Saturday of a homecoming weekend that included a football win over Rutgers – the fraternity president welcomed them.

“Come on in,” said Jason Schwartz, 20.

Inside, music blared. Colored lights flashed and students danced, some while drinking from red plastic cups. Two women in a corner mugged for a selfie. An adjacent room was nearly empty.

After monitors checked the house, Schwartz assured Shaha the party did not exceed capacity.

“I can guarantee we’re under 100,” he said.

Shaha agreed. In fact, the monitors found everything to be in order. There was no visible bar. And about those red cups?

“They were serving soda and Red Bull,” Shaha said. “That’s what we saw.”

Schwartz, a junior from Shavertown, Luzerne County, said he had no problems with the increased scrutiny.

“The university has sufficiently managed to strike a balance between granting us our privacy and enforcing their rules,” said Schwartz, an economics and political science major. “In addition, the hiring of compliance monitors, rather than reliance on a third-party security provider, has been effective in creating mutual respect and an open line of communication between the university and fraternity leadership.”

His was one of only two fraternities that night that agreed to let an Inquirer and Daily News reporter enter their privately owned houses or speak with members.

Camera icon William Thomas Cain
Party monitors arrive outside a fraternity house. WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN

University officials say that since their monitoring began, the weekend crowds around Frat Row seem to have gotten smaller.

“The chapter leaders [are] more diligent about following risk-management practices,” said Lawrence Lokman, vice president for strategic communications. “This is especially true compared to past years.”

From that night, monitors found one violation for crowd size and another possible violation where alcohol was being served. They also cited two risk-management concerns – one where a house didn’t have a frat member monitoring the entrance and another where there was no trash can at the door to collect alcohol students might try to bring in.

There are gray areas, Shaha said. Fraternity members over 21 are allowed to have alcohol in their houses. Monitors aren’t permitted to go into bedrooms or other private areas, so it’s hard to know what may be going on there.

“But we’re doing as much as we can to ensure that they know we have a presence,” Shaha said.

Mixed reaction

Some Greek life members have mixed feelings about the heightened monitoring.

“People drink before they go out. … They get too drunk and they come here, and it just doesn’t end well,” said a fraternity member who would only identify himself as Stephen from New York.

Then the house unfairly is blamed, he said.

Jenna Scotti, 20, a junior from King of Prussia, who belongs to a sorority she declined to name, said “there needed to be a response” to Piazza’s death. But, she said: “It’s hard to see what’s the best solution.”

Tom Stephan, president of the alumni corporation for the Theta Delta Chi fraternity and a retired architect from Media, likes the new approach: “That says you can be inspected [by university monitors] at any time.”

His fraternity was one of three approved to serve alcohol over homecoming weekend because it had met all requirements to educate new members and have proper risk-management strategies in place. The fraternity, Stephan said, hired a certified bartender, required identification for those who wanted to drink, and had drinkers’ hands marked.

“We want to be leaders,” Stephan said, standing on the brick porch of the frat’s stately gray stone house that Saturday while a fellow alum roasted a pig. “There are bad eggs. But there are a lot of fraternities here trying to do the right thing.”

His fraternity made changes in response to Piazza’s death — including adding three recent graduates to its board, to improve communication among younger members.

Camera icon William Thomas Cain
Partygoers arrive at a fraternity house as monitors check in. WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN

Not all fraternities are as cooperative.

Last spring, Penn State revoked recognition of the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity after social checkers found it violating nearly every rule, including ones banning underage drinking.

But because the frat’s national office didn’t suspend the chapter, its members continue to live in the house. Monitors can’t enter because the university no longer has oversight.

“They are beyond our reach,” Sims said as monitors walked passed the Sigma Alpha Mu house along Prospect Avenue. “That’s a problem for us.”

Fraternities sometimes grapple with crowd control, too. Monitors came upon a house with fencing around the entrance — designed to be a signal that no party was planned — but where students were pressing to get in anyway.

Camera icon William Thomas Cain
A fraternity puts up a fence to block its house entrance to signal to students that no party is planned there for the night.WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN

“Push ’em! Push ’em! Push ’em!” someone yelled as frat members struggled to secure a fence against a crush of people trying to gain admittance.

Shaha shook his head.

“Looks like they’re not taking no for an answer,” he said. “We encourage [frats] to call the police for any sort of crowd issue, and they do. Also many chapters have begun hiring private security firms to help control crowds.”

Monitors circled back later. It looked as if the party that wasn’t supposed to happen was underway.

“Let’s … check on this,” Sims said.