James Vivenzio wept when he read about the death of Pennsylvania State University fraternity pledge Tim Piazza.
He also was appalled.
“This was completely preventable,” said Vivenzio, 23, of Great Falls, Va., who sued Penn State in 2015 over his own hazing by a fraternity. “I provided Penn State with clear evidence of hazing, especially with alcohol, and they did absolutely nothing with the information I gave them.”
Penn State has disputed Vivenzio’s claim that the university ignored his report of hazing for more than a year. After he reported the allegations to State College police, the university revoked recognition of the fraternity, Kappa Delta Rho, for three years, citing hazing, underage drinking, and sexual harassment involving nude photos of women.
Vivenzio said in his lawsuit that as a Kappa Delta Rho pledge in 2012, he was force-fed buckets of liquor mixed with urine, vomit, and hot sauce; made to guzzle hard alcohol until he vomited; burned on the chest with a cigarette; and beaten by a fraternity member after he failed to participate in a ritual.
He said there were times when he thought he or someone else might die.
“The biggest thing I remember telling Penn State is, this isn’t a small issue of people drinking a little too much and throwing up,” he said. “It’s life or death.”
Piazza, 19, of Lebanon, N.J., drank large quantities of alcohol during a Feb. 2 pledge night party at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity as part of a ritual called “the Gauntlet” and fell down a flight of stairs. Fraternity members did not call for emergency help until nearly 12 hours later. Piazza died the following day, having suffered a non-recoverable brain injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung.
Eighteen fraternity members were charged last week with offenses that included involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, hazing, reckless endangerment, furnishing alcohol to minors, and tampering with evidence.
“I felt it was finally a step in the right direction,” Vivenzio said, “to hold people accountable for the atrocities that happen behind closed doors.”
Penn State permanently banned Beta Theta Pi after the sophomore engineering major’s death.
Beta Theta Pi is far from the only fraternity that has run afoul of the rules. Penn State’s Interfraternity Council oversees 45 fraternities. Since 2015, there have been “170 chapter conduct cases,” university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.
Discipline of fraternity chapters is managed by the student-run council, which is advised by the school’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. More than 40 percent of the 170 violations cited by the IFC were for things such as unregistered socials, use of glass bottles, no wristbands, and lack of signage for exits or other areas in the fraternity house, Powers said. The remaining citations run the gamut from serving minors, noise violations and multiple points of alcohol distribution to a lack of event monitors and two hazing violations, she said.
Penn State, Powers said, reserves the right to withdraw recognition from chapters, which she said is the only disciplinary tool the university has against these student organizations. The school conducts its own disciplinary procedures for individual students of these organizations charged with conduct violations.
Vivenzio’s attorney, Aaron Freiwald, said that Penn State should do more and that Piazza’s death had renewed conversation about a university’s role. The grand jury presentment harshly criticized Penn State’s Greek culture, he said.
“The Penn State Greek community nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing,” the presentment said, “that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life.”
Penn State issued new rules for Greek organizations after Piazza died, including reducing the number and size of allowable parties, and deferring recruitment to second semester of freshman year.
“It is important to understand that fraternities at Penn State are independent from the university,” Powers said. “These groups are private organizations on private property, and self-governed.”
Vivenzio’s lawsuit against Kappa Delta Rho and Penn State is ongoing.
The suit claims that the university failed to act on his reports of abuse, including his account of private Facebook pages fraternity members allegedly used to post revealing photos of females who may have been unaware they were being photographed.
He reported the Facebook pages to State College police, who did not charge anyone.
In response to the suit, Penn State said neither Vivenzio nor his family was willing to file a complaint, provide documentation, speak with State College police at that time, or take part in the formal disciplinary process when he first told the school about hazing and drinking violations. The school says that he did not report the Facebook pages to university officials, and that state police told the school after Vivenzio reported it to them.
Freiwald has disputed that account.
University spokeswoman Lisa M. Powers said Thursday of Vivenzio’s lawsuit, “A judge has already dismissed this case, but allowed one claim to be refiled. We are hopeful that the claim will be dismissed again, as it largely duplicates Mr. Vivenzio’s prior claims.”
Vivenzio, who pledged the fraternity first semester of freshman year, said his first indication of a problem was a ritual known as "lineups," in which pledges were ordered to the basement, often in the middle of the night, and made to drink large quantities of alcohol while doing sit-ups and push-ups.
His studies suffered. He took a year off and got treatment for alcohol and post-traumatic stress because of the hazing, Freiwald said. He returned to the school in fall 2014, but left before the semester ended and was hospitalized in early 2015 because of stress from the hazing, his lawyer said.
Vivenzio now works as a server in a restaurant.
“I have signed up for classes,” he said. “It’s just been very difficult getting back into everything.”