PSU tragedy begets push for hazing laws

Timothy Piazza was a participant in an alleged hazing ritual called “the gauntlet” the night that he died at Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity in State College.

Hazing has long been a tradition for those seeking membership in college fraternities and other such organizations.

But the Penn State case and others across the country have prompted a counter movement targeting hazing as a dangerous practice that must be eliminated.

We agree, and we support a proposal by state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Bellefonte, that would toughen penalties for those who engage in hazing that leads to injuries or death.

If adopted by the Legislature, “The Timothy J. Piazza Anti-hazing Law” would make such incidents third-degree felonies, with convictions bringing penalties up to seven years in prison and $15,000 in fines.

“I think when they understand you’re now talking felonies, that’s a significant charge to go against you for the rest of your life — not just in the short-term,” Corman told Penn State journalism student Alison Kuznitz, who covered the Senate majority leader’s press conference for The Tribune-Democrat.

“There are other ways to have rituals for people to join organizations without putting them in harm.”

Penn State President Eric Barron joined Corman and the Piazza family, calling for more transparent reporting of hazing incidents by universities. Barron said Penn State now has a zero-tolerance hazing policy.

Hazing — defined as a rite of passage that might involve pain, ridicule or humiliation — is not limited to fraternities and sororities. The practice is found among sports teams, military groups, marching bands — even in some work places.

Hank Nuwer, a faculty member at Franklin College in Indiana, has become a national expert on hazing, appearing on major news networks and writing on the topic for leading publications.

Nuwer reports that at least one hazing death has occurred on a North American college campus every year since 1959, with the vast majority at fraternities and most involving alcohol.

Time magazine lists four such deaths in 2017: Piazza in February; Maxwell Gruver, in September at Louisiana State (ritual called “Bible Study,” with pledges forced to drink if they incorrectly answered questions about Phi Delta Theta); Andrew Coffey, in November at Florida State (had a blood alcohol level of .447 after “big brother” ritual at Pi Kappa Phi); Matthew Ellis, in November at Texas State (found unresponsive after an initiation at Phi Kappa Psi).

All four were 20 or younger. And yes, they should have known better than to participate in such dangerous “games.”

But the culture of excessive drinking with physical and mental abuse seen at many fraternities and similar organizations must end.

The brothers at Beta Theta Pi have shown little remorse over the death of a pledge in their midst, and hazing continues on many college campuses despite rules against the practice and tragic evidence of the risks.

Evelyn Piazza’s son will never come home — his life cut short before he could marry, begin a career, become a father.

She hopes fewer moms suffer the same fate in the future.

State lawmakers should quickly adopt these tougher anti-hazing guidelines.

“It’s good to know it can be the toughest law and the biggest deterrent, and a model for other states to follow,” she said. “There’s the possibility of saving other people because potential perpetrators will know there are real consequences.”