Official: Penn State had no reason to suspect problems at frat tied to student death

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Pennsylvania State University had no reason to suspect that the fraternity linked to the death of New Jersey student Tim Piazza was engaging in dangerous hazing and underage drinking, said the university’s vice president for student affairs.

In fact, the fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, was among Penn State’s best, according to the official, Damon Sims, twice named chapter of the year since 2010 — and on the path again this year to be recognized as one of three “chapters of excellence.”

“It was the finest fraternity house I’ve ever been in,” Sims said. “By all outward appearances, all the measurements we would have used, we would have judged them to be exemplary. And despite all of that, the very worst outcome occurred there, and it occurred because of the gross misuse of alcohol and hazing.”

Piazza, 19, died in early February after falling down stairs during pledge night, and fraternity brothers didn’t call for help until the next morning, nearly 12 hours later.

The precipitous turn perhaps best illustrates the thorny problem that universities face policing fraternities, which are private associations overseen by alumni boards and often located in off campus houses.

Beta Theta had a live-in adult adviser, Tim Bream, 56, who also serves as Penn State’s assistant athletic director and head trainer for the football team. Bream, Sims said, was in line to be named fraternity adviser of the year.

Instead he has drawn the ire of Jim and Evelyn Piazza, Tim Piazza’s parents, who said they were told by police that Bream was home the night of the pledge event. Penn State officials have said they had been unaware that Bream was living at the frat house.

A criminal investigation into Beta Theta Pi is nearing completion. Sims said the university is waiting for the outcome of that before taking any disciplinary action against students who were involved.

Sims said the university alone can not stop underage drinking and hazing, problems that have long vexed universities. Alumni groups who oversee fraternities and the students themselves must be part of the solution, he said.

“We have invested enormous time and energy and capital in trying to mitigate these problems,” Sims said, citing alcohol screening and intervention and aggressive discipline for off-campus infractions. “It is simply a gross misunderstanding of reality for anyone to think that Penn State or frankly most other universities have ignored these issues. We absolutely have not ignored them and yet we would admit we have not solved them.”

The Piazzas in an interview with the Inquirer were critical of the university for failing to take substantial action on the fraternity system, despite having formed a task force in 2015 after another fraternity incident.

It wasn’t until the Piazza’s son died that the university issued a moratorium on alcohol at fraternities for the rest of the semester, rolled back recruitment to second semester freshman year, reduced the number of allowable parties and increased monitoring.

In announcing the new rules, Penn State released startling statistics: members of fraternities and sororities are four times as likely to be heavy drinkers as the general student population. Sorority women, the university said, are 50 percent more likely than other females to be sexually assaulted, and fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than non-fraternity men.

The university has begun unannounced spot checks of Greek organizations to make sure they are following the rules, Sims said. Spot checkers are granted access to the public areas of the chapter houses, Sims said. The university is preparing to take action against those where violations already have been uncovered, he said.

The task force, Sims said, was quite large and included students, Greek life leaders, alumni, State College borough officials and residents who live near the fraternities. The group met 26 times for a total of more than 50 hours but could not agree on substantive issues, he said. Some members supported the status quo while others wanted the university to take complete control of the system, Sims said.

Yet others have advocated shutting down fraternities, but Sims worries that if the university were to do that, a system of underground groups would materialize as they have at some other colleges and the university would have even less ability to influence behavior.

About 18 percent of undergraduates participate in Penn State’s 82 fraternities and sororities.

The task force did decide that there should be a report card on Greek organizations, comparing them in areas such as service hours, philanthropy, disciplinary infractions and nuisance violations.

“The reality is had we created the report card,” Sims said, “at the top of the report card would have been Beta Theta Pi.”

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