By: Sarah Rowan, Editor-in-Chief
Towson University officials and members of the Greek life community are reacting after the harrowing details of a Penn State hazing death were released Friday.
19-year-old Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza died on Feb. 4 after falling repeatedly during a Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge night of excessive drinking on Feb. 2.
“I think the incident is devastating,” Towson Vice President of Student Affairs Deb Moriarty said. “I think it’s really disheartening, with the amount of hazing intervention and bystander education, that something like this could still happen.”
Eighteen members of Beta Theta Pi face criminal charges in Piazza’s death.
Eight members of the fraternity face charges of involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, while 10 face lesser charges, according to grand jury documents released by the Centre County District Attorney’s Office on Friday.
The charges include counts of hazing, furnishing alcohol to minors, recklessly endangering another person and tampering with evidence.
Grand jury documents report that the initiation ritual included a “gauntlet” of various drinking acts – including passing around a vodka bottle, shotgunning a beer, drinking from a wine bag and playing beer pong.
Video surveillance showed an evidently intoxicated Piazza “staggering drunkenly toward the basement steps” at around 10:45 p.m, according to the documents.
In a group message written shortly before midnight, fraternity brother Greg Rizzo wrote, “Also Tim Piazza might actually be a problem. He fell 15 feet down a flight of stairs, hair-first, going to need help.”
Four fraternity brothers carried Piazza to a couch upstairs, where various fraternity brothers “backpacked” him to keep him from rolling onto his back, poured liquid on him and slapped him in the face multiple times, according to the court documents.
At around 3:30 a.m., surveillance showed Piazza attempting to move around the house, and subsequently falling multiple times, striking his head. Around 10 a.m., Piazza was found in the basement, and was reported to be “breathing heavy” and feel “cold to the touch.”
The documents report that the fraternity brothers waited until 10:48 a.m. on Feb. 3 to call an ambulance for Piazza.
Piazza was pronounced dead at 1:20 a.m. on Feb. 4 at Hershey Medical Center.
Beta Theta Pi has been banned from Penn State’s campus, and all other Penn State Greek life chapters are restricted from recruiting new members until 2018.
Towson Interim Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Carly Heasley felt “sick to her stomach” when she learned about the details surrounding Piazza’s death.
“It took me a long time to get through the entire article,” Heasley wrote in an email to The Towerlight. “As an administrator, losing a student in any situation is my worst fear, so it was gut wrenching. My heart goes out to his family.”
Maryland law states that hazing is a misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine and six months in jail. Hazing is strictly prohibited at Towson University, according to the University’s hazing policy.
According to the policy, hazing includes, but is not limited to, activities such as: team initiations, kidnapping, paddling in any form, mandated branding or tattooing, mandated consumption and “any other activities not consistent with the academic mission of the University.”
The policy holds all individuals participating in hazing accountable, including the those initiating the hazing, those being hazed and any bystanders who witness the hazing.
“By writing the policy this way, our office, along with the Office of Student Conduct and Civility Education, is able to hold all parties involved responsible for hazing,” Heasley wrote. “Within the past couple of years, we have also held individual students accountable through the student conduct process, not just the organization.”
Most recently, the University suspended the Towson chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon due to an off-campus hazing violation.
Baltimore County Police announced in July that they had charged two members of TKE with hazing and reckless endangerment in relation to an incident that occurred at 333 Hillen Road in late March 2016.
Alexander James Cantor is scheduled to appear in court on May 23, 2017. Evan Palmer Francis was sentenced to probation before judgement in October.
According to court documents, Towson University Police learned on April 3, 2016, that a student, later identified as 19-year-old Michael Nanan, was hospitalized at St. Joseph Medical Center for injuries sustained during an “off-campus initiation event.”
Nanan was made to perform “strenuous workouts” and consume substances such as cat food and pickle juice, according to court records.
After the event, he began to vomit blood, and was taken to the hospital by his mother, where a gastroenterologist determined that he suffered “moderate to severe burns” along his esophagus, stomach and portions of his intestines, according to court records.
The Towson chapter of TKE has been suspended until the end of summer 2021.
To Moriarty, incidents like this serve as both a warning and a wake-up call to University administration and Greek life.
“I don’t know if anyone sets out intentionally to hurt someone,” Moriarty said. “When there’s a highly visible incident, it’s a reminder of how quickly things can go wrong.”
Moriarty and Heasley agree that the University has a strong hazing education education program, but that it’s “not fool-proof,” Moriarty said.
“We continue to educate our community on hazing prevention, bystander intervention and alcohol education,” Heasley wrote. “[…] We will continue to educate our students on these topics and adapt our training sessions to current issues that are relevant to our students.”