Grand jury report: Penn State failed to properly monitor frats, hazing

Centre County DA Stacy Parks Miller speaks about the Beta Theta Pi hazing investigation and the charges brought against 18 people last spring. Timothy Piazza'a parents Jim and Evelyn Piazza stand with her in the Centre County Court annex in Bellefonte, Pa., Friday May 5, 2017. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

Pennsylvania State University failed to properly monitor and discipline its fraternities for years, leading to life-threatening conditions and widespread violations of policies involving alcohol and hazing, according to a grand jury report released Friday.

“Penn State officials were aware of the excessive and dangerous alcohol abuse indulged by fraternities, such that it was only a matter of time before a death would occur during a hazing event,” the report said. “The grand jury concludes that the university knew or should have known of these dangers.”

Ten months in the making, the report comes in response to the death of sophomore pledge Tim Piazza after an alleged booze-fueled hazing ritual at the now-defunct Beta Theta Pi fraternity. But the 19-year-old’s death in February was by no means an isolated case.

Hazing at Penn State is “widespread and pervasive,” the grand jury said, noting resistance from some members of the Greek system to stopping it, calling the practice “an important, fundamental element of how we bond.”

The stark findings led the body to ponder the need for a fraternity system.

“The grand jury,” the 236-page report said, “seriously questions the value and purpose of modern-day fraternities if focus cannot be redirected back to its roots of academic excellence, community service and respectful brotherhood.”

The review blasted the school for allowing the student-run Interfraternity Council to monitor and discipline fraternities – a practice that the university changed following Piazza’s death.

“The IFC’s self-regulation was a joke and a catastrophe,” Stacy Parks Miller, Centre County district attorney, said during a two-hour news conference. “Penn State allowed the students to police themselves, and the results were predictable.”

The report calls on the legislature to toughen penalties for hazing and dub it “Tim’s law.” It also seeks increased penalties for furnishing alcohol to minors. The university, too, should increase its penalties for violations, and mandate that hazing be reported by students and employees, the report said.

“Sanctions for violations of the alcohol policy must be severe, progressive, and non-negotiable,” the report said.

Penn State in its written response criticized the grand jury as minimizing or ignoring upgrades it has made since Piazza’s death. The school also asserted that it is limited in exercising control over the privately owned houses and organizations and that the responsibility for policing them belongs to the commonwealth.

“The university is prepared to be a leader, but not a scapegoat,” the school said.

[Read the full grand jury report]

The report is the second phase of the investigation into Piazza’s death. Parks Miller last spring charged 18 fraternity members in connection with the death. Prosecutors have alleged that Piazza was forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol during a hazing ritual that included a drinking “gauntlet.”

Piazza, an engineering major from Lebanon, N.J., later fell down the fraternity stairs, and was left to languish for nearly 12 hours before anyone called for help. He later died.

A district justice initially dismissed involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges against eight fraternity members, but Parks Miller refiled them in October.

“We are shaken and appalled by the findings of Penn State’s longtime knowledge of dangerous hazing, the excessive drinking culture, sexual assaults and other abusive behavior, and the university’s preference to ignore and/or condone such behavior,” said James and Evelyn Piazza, Tim’s parents.

About 17 percent of the student body, or about 7,000 students, typically belong to the 76 fraternities and sororities. More than a dozen fraternities are on suspension at Penn State, several of them since Piazza’s death.

Penn State has overhauled regulations on Greek life, including taking control of discipline and monitoring of fraternities. That job used to be handled — and badly, according to the grand jury — by the IFC.

The IFC employed St. Moritz, a private security firm, to conduct spot checks, but even the firm’s employees and the IFC student president told the grand jury the practice was ineffective. The spot checkers were made to wait outside, while fraternity members hid infractions, Parks Miller said.

Asked how easy it was for fraternities to beat the rules on a scale of one to 10, Dean Vetere, IFC president, told the grand jury, “It’s probably a 10, easy.”

The spot checkers are only permitted to go into public areas of houses — and that hasn’t changed since the university took over monitoring.

Vetere agreed, according to testimony, with the statement that “the fraternity brothers can have all the hard liquor they want in their rooms, all the kegs they want, drinking stations, and this security firm would have no idea.”

The night of the party where Piazza fell spot checkers from St. Moritz visited. One told the grand jury he saw a bottle of vodka “floating around” and that a bartender was drinking. The checker said he believes his report noted those infractions.

When the grand jury subpoenaed the report, Vetere told them he couldn’t find it but that he didn’t believe any violations were noted, which is why it could have been discarded.

On Friday night, Daniel Lee, an IFC vice president at Penn State, issued a statement on behalf of the IFC executive board. It read:

“As our community reflects on our past and learns from these tragic events, the Interfraternity Council and our chapters recognize the need for genuine change at the core of the Penn State fraternity culture. Working alongside others in our campus community, the IFC has begun to work towards this change and will continue to do so to help ensure safety, support, transparency, and accountability.”

Under Penn State’s new system, university staff  conduct the spot checks and write up the violations.

But Parks Miller said those measures are not enough.

The school, she said, should employ “in-house checkers” full-time at every party, and only if a fraternity follows rules for a full semester should the school return to random checks.

The university banned serving alcohol at Greek social events after Piazza’s death, and only recently has allowed a few fraternities to resume. Parks Miller said that unless the university improves safety, the ban should continue.

“It’s the only way to go,” Parks Miller said, “to turn it around.”