Hazing deaths are avoidable but all too common
No parent should have to bury their child. But after a fraternity hazing ritual turned deadly, Jim and Evelyn Piazza found themselves having to do just that. The Piazzas are the parents of Timothy Piazza, a second-year engineering major at Penn State who died on Feb. 4. The night he died, Piazza, along with other Beta Theta Pi initiates, had just run “the gauntlet,” a hazing ritual during which pledges had to run to various stations and chug vodka, wine and beer. Piazza, who had a blood alcohol level between 0.28 and 0.36 (over three times the legal driving limit), fell down the stairs head-first.
The series of events that followed demonstrate a serious lack of judgment on the part of the Beta Theta Pi members. The fraternity members decided to place an unconscious Piazza on a couch. They splashed water on his face, they punched him in the abdomen and they placed a backpack full of books on him to prevent him from rolling on his back. At no point in the night did they call an ambulance or seek professional medical care. Finally, at around 11 a.m on Feb. 3., the fraternity members called 911. Piazza was taken to a local hospital, where he was found to have a fractured skull and a lacerated spleen, and pronounced dead the next morning.
Perhaps the most tragic and infuriating aspect of the Piazza story is how easily it might have been prevented. If one member of the fraternity had spoken up against the barbaric hazing ritual that the pledges were enduring, Piazza might still be alive. If someone had called 911 as soon as he witnessed a fellow brother falling head-first down a flight of stairs, Piazza might still be alive. Instead, there are signs that they actually attempted to cover up their actions. In a text recovered by police, one brother wrote, “If need be, just tell them what I told you guys, found him behind [a bar] the next morning at around 10 a.m., and he was freezing-cold, but we decided to call 911 instantly, because the kid’s health was paramount.”
Piazza’s parents have pressed charges, which include counts of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and tampering with evidence, against Beta Theta Pi and 18 Penn State students. The Editorial Board supports this lawsuit wholeheartedly. Unsafe hazing practices in the Greek community have been allowed to continue for far too long and will continue to occur if actions like these go unpunished. There is far too much hazing and excessive drinking in Greek life and not enough education about being an effective and proactive bystander in cases of alcohol poisoning. All university students, especially those in Greek life, should be required to attend alcohol bystander intervention trainings to prevent something like this from happening again.
And to all of the UC Davis students who will participate in Houseboats this upcoming Memorial Day weekend: please learn from the senseless tragedy at Penn State. Drinking to excess may seem fun in the moment, but the consequences may be deadly serious. If you see someone who is unconscious or is displaying other signs of alcohol poisoning, don’t just stand there. Speak up and call for help — even if other people seem ambivalent. It could very well be the difference between life and death.