The horrific death of Penn State University student Timothy Piazza, who died 12 hours after drinking heavily and falling down a flight of stairs at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, may finally bring to light a deeply troubling subculture of hazing at Penn State and colleges around the country. And that would be long overdue.
But just as likely, this case will end like so many before it, as a missed opportunity to truly change the way campuses deal with crime.
First, the good news, if there is any: Three months after Piazza was forced to drink fatal amounts of alcohol in a hazing ritual, and was then left for dead by his “brothers,” police have charged 18 fraternity members with an array of very serious crimes, from involuntary manslaughter to providing alcohol to a minor.
If you’re thinking, “That’s good news. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?” that’s the right reaction.
But it rarely does. More often than not, punishment for hazing on college campuses goes only as far as administrative investigations and student expulsions, if not mere suspensions.
A fraternity may eventually be kicked off campus either temporarily or permanently, but it’s not a given that law enforcement intervenes in what would, anywhere else in America, be considered a crime.
Hazing is in fact illegal in 44 of 50 states, including Pennsylvania. It’s defined as the forced abuse, either physical or mental, a student must endure to gain admittance into an organization. That includes forced drinking.
And the fact that a student may have “consented” to the ritual is not a defense. Witnesses — including coaches, faculty and other students — can be held criminally liable for failing to report incidents.
And yet, thanks to a culture of impunity on campus and a “boys will be boys” mentality, arrests are rare. Take a recent hazing case at Loyola University in Chicago — a state where hazing is illegal. The university suspended Sigma Alpha Epsilon after receiving “credible information alleging that the chapter is engaged in hazing activity.” According to the Chicago Tribune, “No other details about the allegation were available.”
Or an incident at Quinnipiac University, in Connecticut, also where hazing is illegal. In 2014, Tau Kappa Epsilon was shut down, one member expelled and two others suspended amid hazing allegations. According to the New Haven Register: “University officials would not comment further.”
Or yet another one year later at Quinnipiac, where Sigma Phi Epsilon was served a cease-and-desist order over a hazing allegation. According to a local news report: “The school has not released any more details about what occurred.”
Notice a pattern here? A hazing incident is alleged, an internal investigation is conducted, and maybe a fraternity is punished by the college. But the actual crime of hazing — and potentially dozens of other crimes under the umbrella of hazing — are never criminally pursued.
How do colleges get away with keeping so tight-lipped about hazing incidents, not to mention athletic scandals and sexual assault allegations?
Oftentimes they hide behind FERPA — the federal student privacy law — which prohibits a college from making a student’s records public. But, of course, there’s a provision in FERPA that allows for those records to be released if in compliance “with a judicial order or lawfully issued subpoena,” and in fact a New York state Supreme Court justice ruled four years ago that hazing allegations are not protected by FERPA.
“FERPA is widely misunderstood in higher education,” Duquesne University Law Prof. Jacob Rooksby told the Huffington Post last year. “(Schools) often want to hide behind it — it’s the great boogeyman in higher ed.”
When it comes to crime, college campuses act as if they are sovereign nations, inside which secret bodies can adjudicate criminal wrongdoing to protect the reputation of the institution and the illusion that it is a safe place to send your kids.
Which means, in most cases, students are denied their rights to defend themselves and told to rely solely on “the system” to protect them from predators and criminals.
It would have been hard to keep a death at Penn State a secret from law enforcement. But must it take a death to prosecute hazing?
University President Eric Barron insisted Friday that Penn State “has one of the most aggressive student misconduct policies in the country.”
Hazing isn’t “misconduct,” though. Neither is rape or sexual harassment. They’re crimes — and until colleges face that harsh reality, they’ll likely continue to go unpunished.
This column originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
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