December 15, 2017 / 11:08 AM / 10 months ago

Penn State's 'shocking apathy' to drinking blamed in hazing death

BELLEFONTE, Pa. (Reuters) - Pennsylvania State University’s “shocking apathy” to alcohol abuse contributed to the death of a student after he consumed 18 drinks in less than an hour and a half during a fraternity initiation, according a report issued on Friday.

Grand jury members wrote the report after hearing testimony on hazing and alcohol use within the sprawling university’s fraternity system. Prosecutors issued it at Centre County Court in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania 10 months the death of Timothy Piazza, 19.

Piazza, a sophomore from Lebanon, New Jersey, tumbled down two flights of stairs and seriously injured himself while intoxicated at the party. He died two days after the alcohol-fueled hazing ritual.

He had been served at least 18 drinks within 82 minutes at the event for prospective members, or “pledges” at Beta Theta Pi house, said Stacy Parks Miller, Centre County’s district attorney. Some 26 fraternity members face charges, but the grand jury said Penn State should take ultimate responsibility for guarding against alcohol abuse by students.

“This grand jury finds that Penn State administrators displayed a shocking apathy to the potential danger associated with doing nothing,” the report said. It urged state legislators to tighten laws against hazing and furnishing alcoholic beverages to minors.

If a person dies in connection with those crimes, the grand jury recommended increasing the maximum penalty to 20 years in prison from the current top punishment of two years behind bars.

In Piazza’s death, 26 fraternity members face charges including involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, hazing and furnishing alcoholic beverages to a minor under 21.

Penn State has banned Beta Theta Pi. It said it disagreed with the grand jury’s findings that the university also was at fault.

“The university is prepared to be a leader, but not a scapegoat,” Penn State attorney Duane Morris responded in a court document. “The university pledges to continue to educate, investigate and vigorously discipline its students to do our best to prevent another tragic loss caused by the scourge of alcohol abuse.”

Surveillance-camera video showed an initiation that included games involving the rapid consumption of wine, beer and vodka in the frat house’s basement during a pledge party.

The footage showing the games had been deleted after the fraternity learned police planned to seize the video from the frat house in the town of State College, but the FBI was able to recover and restore the clip.

“No one should die because they want to join a fraternity,” said Rich Braham, who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Penn State after his 18-year-old son Marquise committed suicide in March 2014, following months of initiation rituals by Phi Sigma Kappa.

“The problems are institutional,” said Braham, a television news producer. “My beautiful son went to Penn State full of life and joy and sarcasm and just was a fun kid. He didn’t join a fraternity to get hazed.”

Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio

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