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Pennsylvania Grand Jury Hopes Investigation Will Change Fraternity Culture Across The U.S.

Dec 15, 2017
Originally published on December 15, 2017 7:16 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A Pennsylvania grand jury has issued a scathing report on the state of fraternity life at Penn State University. It says school officials were remarkably undisturbed by complaints about excessive and dangerous alcohol abuse. It says the school was more interested in marketing itself as a fun place to be. A 19-year-old sophomore died back in February during an alcohol-fueled hazing ritual at one fraternity.

NPR's Jeff Brady joins us now from State College Pennsylvania. And, Jeff, that's the top line of the report. What else did it say?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Well, it said a lot. It said - the report is 144 pages long. And members of the grand jury, they lay out that case that suggests Penn State knew it had a problem with excessive drinking and hazing but failed to address it. And there's a lot of focus on one program where monitors and checkers go around to frat parties looking for violations of laws or university rules. But that program, it was run by students through the Interfraternity Council, or IFC. And Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller says there were all kinds of problems with that. For example, the checkers were not allowed to come into the frat houses until after members had a chance to clean up.

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STACY PARKS MILLER: The IFC self-regulation was a joke and a catastrophe. Penn State allowed these students to police themselves, and the results were absolutely predictable.

BRADY: And the grand jury report said, quote, "it was only a matter of time before a death would occur during a hazing event."

SIEGEL: Which sounds exactly like what happened back in February.

BRADY: It is - Timothy Piazza. He was a pledge at Beta Theta Pi fraternity. And that was supposed to be a dry fraternity, but clearly it was not. Prosecutors say he was given a lot of alcohol. He fell down the same set of stairs twice. And one unique factor in this whole case is that a lot of this was caught on surveillance cameras in the fraternity house. And on the video, Piazza was clearly severely injured. Fraternity brothers had moved him to a couch, but no one called for help until the next day, and by that time it was too late. The injuries to Piazza's brain stem were irreversible and he later died. Of course, that launched the criminal investigation. Now 26 fraternity members face charges ranging from giving alcohol to a minor to involuntary manslaughter.

SIEGEL: And how has Penn State responded to the grand jury report?

BRADY: Well, Penn State President Eric Barron says the university strongly disagrees with DA Parks Miller in how she characterizes the school's response to the Piazza death. The university is taking strong steps, it says. It banned the fraternity Beta Theta Pi forever, and recognition for seven other Greek organizations have been suspended or revoked. Timothy Piazza's parents also released a statement. And they largely echo the criticisms from the prosecutor and the grand jury.

SIEGEL: Well, now that this report from the grand jury is out, what happens next in this case?

BRADY: Yeah, the report made a lot of recommendations about how the university and the state should handle hazing and drinking on campuses. Penn State says it's going to examine those suggestions carefully. For the criminal case, it's just not clear, though, because DA Parks Miller, she lost her primary election. The new DA has recused himself because he previously represented people involved in the case. And now it's up to the state attorney general. But Parks Miller, she's gone in a couple of weeks.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Jeff Brady in State College, Penn. Jeff, thanks.

BRADY: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.