Penn State Greek Life Two Years After Piazza's Death

Feb 18, 2019

Just over two years ago, Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza died from injuries sustained at an alcohol-fueled bid acceptance party at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.

Penn State took swift action. It permanently banned Beta Theta Pi, halted all fraternity parties and implemented other sanctions meant to make Greek life safer.

Now two years have passed, two new classes of students have arrived, and two years’ worth of new regulations have been instituted. So, what’s changed?

Fraternity member Brannon DeWolf said there’s less partying.

“There’s less of it and it’s more regulated by the school. The school comes by a whole lot more than they used to. We have a lot of checks and more regulations that we have to follow," Dewolf said. "There’s less people around; it’s less frequent. It’s just quieter in general.”

DeWolf is in the ACACIA fraternity and has been since before the Beta Theta Pi incident. Now a junior, he says the new regulations on Greek life have fostered positive changes within his fraternity.

Some of those regulations include deferred recruitment until a student has a certain number of credits or has been on campus for a semester; stricter social restrictions surrounding alcohol; monitoring of social events; and a fee to fund those monitoring services.

DeWolf says ACACIA is focusing more on community service. They now raise a thousand dollars a semester for the Child and Family Development Council of Centre County.

“We’re kind of bringing back the original focus, or the original mission, of serving the community – helping out a little more, being more involved around here at school,” DeWolf said.

But he said he’s not sure how much of an impact the regulations have actually had on improving safety.  

“I don’t know if it’s safer," DeWolf said. "I mean I guess from having smaller crowds and by basis of less frequency, it could be considered safer.”

Considering that more than 30,000 students live off campus, according to Penn State student affairs, DeWolf said an incident like what happened with Piazza could happen anywhere.

“I don’t know what university rules are going to prevent anybody from going out and doing what they want to do whether they’re in a fraternity or they’re going to the next apartment social next door,” DeWolf said.  

DeWolf said fraternities—and Greek life as a whole—shouldn’t be viewed as a monolithic group. With 70 fraternities and sororities at Penn State, more than 5,000 students take part in Greek organizations.

“I definitely think it gets a bad rap, and I wouldn’t say that it’s all completely unjustified, but I think a lot of it is," DeWolf said. "You have to keep in mind, I think it’s some stat like some 18 percent of Penn Staters are in Greek life so you’re generalizing about 1 in 5 students here. We’re a completely diverse group of people.”

Senior Mary Nell Smith said she’s noticed changes since 2017.    

“I remember freshman year when you go back on frat row, there used to be hundreds of people standing outside. And now when I drive around, there’s not that many people there,” Smith said.

Smith is a member of the field hockey team, which she said occasionally has social events with fraternities. In the past, the parties would be open to almost anyone.

“Before, they’d just let any girls in, just come on in. But I went to a party—I think it was last year—we had a social with one fraternity and it was just us and them. So it was pretty much an empty house, compared to what it usually is," Smith said.

Smith added that fraternities sometimes get singled out for behavior that lots of students engage in, namely, drinking.

“When drinking gets involved, it doesn’t matter if you’re in a fraternity or just in any club, with that many people, it can get dangerous,” Smith said.

Studies show that excessive drinking, along with sexual assault, happens at higher rates among those in Greek life.

Penn State started publishing Greek life scorecards last year to show a snapshot of how organizations stack up to each other. While they list GPAs and community service hours, they also show organizations’ violations—including alcohol misconduct, sexual assault and hazing.

Sophomore Emma Spisak said she’s attended parties but isn’t a part of Greek life. She’s heard hazing is still a problem. The fall 2018 scorecard showed three hazing violations, 15 alcohol violations and several fraternities suspended for hazing.

“Another part besides the drinking that just scares me, and I’ve heard stories about, is the hazing," Spisak said. "When I think 'Greek life,' hazing is one of the first words that comes to mind, and I don’t think that’s good.”

The Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law went into effect in October of last year. The legislation creates stricter punishments for hazing, classifies types of hazing and seeks to hold individuals more accountable.

The law’s passage, new university regulations, and legal actions against the fraternity members have kept the death of Piazza on students’ minds.

Another frequent reminder is the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house’s proximity to campus. Located on Burrowes Street, the house sees plenty of student foot traffic. Spisak says the physical presence of the house is enough to make her think about what happened.

"I just feel some sadness and a little shiver goes through me when I pass it. Hopefully no one’s going to move in there again and they might keep it as a reminder," Spisak said. 

Penn State is also planning to open a research center named in Piazza’s honor to study Greek Life. The university has already pledged at least $2 million for its establishment.

Regardless of students’ impressions now, Smith, the senior, said it’s just a matter of time before the incident escapes public consciousness.

“Sadly, it probably will go out of peoples’ minds, and it probably will happen again because that kind of stuff always repeats itself when alcohol and drugs are involved," Smith said. "But I think the more people talk about it and are reminded, when students attend these parties, they can at least try to keep themselves safe or look out in case someone else is falling down.”

Next year, only the Penn State senior class will have been on campus when Timothy Piazza died.