Drexel prez: Tim Piazza's death still weighs on me; tougher penalties for hazing necessary | Perspective

Tim Piazza (in blown-up photo) and Jim and Evelyn Piazza, his parents

 

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) has introduced a bill designed to stem fraternity hazing and make college campuses safer.

The measure – which unanimously passed the Senate on Wednesday and is in the House for consideration — would require Pennsylvania colleges and universities to create anti-hazing policies and publish online a partial account of all hazing incidents. It would also add stiffer penalties for individuals and organizations accused of hazing, and offer legal protections to those who call 911 to report an incident.

Too many students have died from senseless hazing incidents on college campuses across the country, including the 2017 tragic death of Pennsylvania State University sophomore Timothy Piazza, 19, for whom Sen. Corman’s bill is named. Tim died after a fraternity hazing ritual called the “gauntlet,” in which he was forced to down 18 drinks in less than 90 minutes. He sustained fatal injuries after a headfirst fall down a set of stairs.

This is not an isolated incident. In this academic year alone, a Louisiana State University student died after a hazing ritual called “Bible study,” in which pledges were forced to drink if they answered incorrectly to questions about the fraternity. A junior pledging a fraternity at Florida State University died after he drank a bottle of bourbon during a “big brother” ritual. A Texas State University sophomore died after an initiation for his fraternity.

This is not to single out any college or university, but to show that such tragedies are all too common. In the last decade alone, more than 40 students have died from hazing-related accidents in the United States, according to data compiled by Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana.

To be sure, Drexel University is not immune and has had its sharing of fraternity drinking incidents. We have policies in place that prohibit hazing in any form. Since 2008, we have been active participants in the national Hazing Prevention Awareness Week, which is designed to raise awareness of the negative effects of hazing and focus on constructive team-building exercises.

To further ensure safety and best practices, we recently retained an outside expert to conduct a qualitative and quantitative analysis of our fraternity and sorority community.

Despite extensive efforts here and on other campuses, students do make bad decisions from time to time – especially when alcohol is involved. Sometimes those decisions turn deadly.

It is not just the hazing victims and their families who are affected. In January, four former fraternity members at Baruch College in New York were sentenced to up to two years in prison stemming from the 2013 death of a pledge from Pennsylvania. Those students now have a painful memory of their role in a tragedy, and a legal record that will follow them forever.

Hazing deaths tend to attract widespread media coverage. However, we shouldn’t forget that fraternities and sororities contribute immensely to the richness of college campuses throughout the year. Drexel has an active and engaged Greek community that includes 35 recognized fraternities and sororities with an undergraduate membership of 1,700 students. Members of Greek organizations excel in the classroom (3.2 average GPA) and are engaged in the local community, with 84 percent participating in one to 15 hours of community service per month.

Despite the positive contributions, the safety of our students is paramount. I reviewed the 70-page grand jury report last year that detailed the heart-wrenching circumstances surrounding Tim Piazza’s death at a Penn State fraternity house. The report was harrowing, and still weighs on me.

As a father of three, including one in college and another getting ready to attend, I cannot imagine what Tim’s parents have endured. As president of Drexel, the biggest concern that keeps me awake at night is the safety of our students.

We must do everything we can to prevent reckless hazing incidents from happening again. This includes increased public awareness, constant vigilance, and tougher regulations. If Sen. Corman’s bill is adopted, Pennsylvania would be at the forefront of making college campuses and fraternity life safer. The Timothy J. Piazza Law could be a model for other states.

I applaud the efforts of Tim’s parents to turn their personal tragedy into a public good. Higher education leaders and lawmakers owe it to students and their families to do everything we can to ensure our college campuses are as safe as possible. I hope other university leaders will join me in supporting Sen. Corman’s bill.

John Fry is president of Drexel University.