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'Horror' Of Student's Hazing Death At Penn State Sparks Change

Penn State student Tim Piazza died after being put through a fraternity hazing ritual. His brother Michael, mother Evelyn and father James hope his death sparks some change on college campuses.
Bebeto Matthews

Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET

Penn State University's Board of Trustees approved a series of new initiatives Friday that are designed to change how the school's fraternities and sororities are regulated. The change comes after the death of 19-year-old sophomore Timothy Piazza brought new attention to the problem of hazing. The most significant move is that Penn State will take over the monitoring and disciplinary processes currently run by student organizations.

In announcing the changes, Penn State President Eric Barron said the university will encourage other schools to crack down on hazing, too.

"We intend to take a national leadership role in this, and as a matter of fact, I will introduce to the Big Ten this weekend that we organize a national conference on Greek life," said Barron.

Evelyn Piazza wears a heart-shaped pendant around her neck that has Timothy's thumbprint on it. "It's like holding his hand when I rub my finger across the thumbprint. It's him. I'm wearing him," she says.
Jeff Brady / NPR
Evelyn Piazza wears a heart-shaped pendant around her neck that has Timothy's thumbprint on it. "It's like holding his hand when I rub my finger across the thumbprint. It's him. I'm wearing him," she says.

Barron also said Penn State will urge state lawmakers to strengthen penalties for hazing.

Piazza's parents, Evelyn and James, have not seen the video that captured the events before their son's death but have said they hoped the "horror" he experienced would prompt change at Penn State and lead to stricter laws more generally around hazing.

In February, Piazza wanted to join the Alpha Upsilon Chapter of Beta Theta Pi at Penn State. It was supposed to be a "dry" fraternity, but it clearly was not. Alcohol played a central role in Piazza's death.

Surveillance cameras captured much of what happened the night of Feb. 2. Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller says that video evidence was central in a decision to bring dozens of charges against 18 people.

Parks Miller says the evening started with something called "the gauntlet." At a May 5 press conference, she described it as a hazing ritual "where they bring the pledges and make them go from station to station and drink copious amounts of alcohol really quickly."

Parks Miller says that after that, Piazza fell down a flight of stairs. He was moved to a couch where he stayed for a few hours. But then, Parks Miller says, Piazza stumbled around the house before again falling down the same flight of stairs.

"He had injury to his side that was visible," says Parks Miller. "And also people at that point, the presentment will tell you, were pointing to his head."

She says that fraternity leaders were aware of Piazza's injuries but that they did little to help him. Court documents show someone put a backpack on Piazza to reduce the risk he would roll over and choke on his own vomit. The prosecutor says one person wanted to call 911, but a fraternity brother pushed him against a wall and stopped him.

Parks Miller says that by the time Piazza got medical care the next day, injuries to his brain stem were irreversible. Because of a spleen injury, doctors say, large amounts of blood had pooled in Piazza's abdomen. He was pronounced dead on Feb. 4.

Attorneys representing the 18 people charged in the case say the counts filed against them are not warranted.

"These charges — involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, simple assault — they require an element of intent," says attorney Pete Sala. He is representing his godson Joe Sala and believes this case doesn't clear that legal hurdle.

Piazza's parents stood next to the prosecutor at the May press conference. They've read the prosecutor's presentment from cover to cover, but they can't imagine watching the video.

"It's bad enough that when I close my eyes, I see him in the hospital," says Evelyn Piazza. "I don't know that I want to see his head hitting a floor, a wall, a railing," she says as her voice breaks up.

James Piazza says there is one circumstance that would change his mind about subjecting himself to those images. He would watch it with the Penn State Board of Trustees and Barron.

"So that they can see the horror that my son had to deal with that night," and, James Piazza says, so that they will know that serious changes are needed in how Penn State's fraternities and sororities are governed.

In addition to the initiatives announced Friday, Penn State has banned the local chapter of Beta Theta Pi forever, and the school plans to issue report cards on fraternities and sororities so students and parents can learn whether there has been trouble in the past.

Beyond Penn State, the Piazzas want laws changed so hazing-related crimes get stiffer penalties.

Across the country, laws and penalties vary, says Emily Pualwan of the group HazingPrevention.Org. "The laws are constantly changing, and we advise everyone — parents, students and organizations — to know your laws." Her group offers an interactive map to help those who want to learn more.

Pualwan says the video evidence has led to the Piazza case receiving more attention than many other hazing cases.

"Our main goal and most important focus is making sure some kind of positive change is effected to ensure that this type of thing never happens again," says Timothy's brother Mike Piazza.

The family may end up filing a lawsuit against the university and others. But right now, they're focused on the criminal case.

As the Piazzas wait for the trial, they're adjusting to life without their son and brother. Evelyn Piazza wears a heart-shaped pendant around her neck that has Timothy's thumbprint on it.

"It's like holding his hand when I rub my finger across the thumbprint. It's him. I'm wearing him," she says.

The Piazzas have started a foundation to offer scholarships in Timothy's name. They also want to further one of his passions. If he had lived long enough to earn an engineering degree, Timothy Piazza planned to spend his career making prosthetics for children and veterans.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers the mid-Atlantic region and energy issues. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
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