Thomas Kline: Anti-hazing law named after Penn State fraternity pledge goes into effect in Pennsylvania
- By Susan Snyder and Liz Navratil The Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Apr 18, 2018
The Pennsylvania Senate Wednesday unanimously approved harsher penalties for hazing that, if passed by the House and signed by Gov. Tom Wolf, would give the state one of the most comprehensive and toughest laws against the crime in the nation.
Known as the Timothy J Piazza law,” the legislation was put forth by Senate Majority leader Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican, in response to the death of Pennsylvania State University student Tim Piazza, who died in 2017 following a booze-fueled fraternity party where hazing is alleged. Eight fraternity members initially were charged with felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter in his death, but a Centre County judge dismissed those charges.
The new legislation would make hazing a third-degree felony in the case of serious bodily injury or death, punishable by up to seven years in prison. It also would pave the way for fraternity houses used in hazing to be seized.
No other state has such a forfeiture provision for hazing, according to Hank Nuwer, a hazing expert and professor at Franklin College, and few states call the crime a felony.
“In my opinion, it’s trying to overcome the loopholes that have seen the harshest charges in the death of Tim Piazza dropped,” Nuwer said of the legislation. “And I agree with that.”
Both Wolf and House leadership this week signaled they also are supportive.
“Honestly what happened up there is a travesty,” Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dave Reed, a Republican from Indiana County, said of the Piazza legal case. “And if that legislation does come here, we absolutely will be taking a look at it. We want to make sure what happened up there does not happen anywhere else on any other campus in the Commonwealth.”
Reed controls the House calendar, and his support signals the bill is likely to get a vote.
Wolf issued a statement, praising the bill, shortly after it passed.
“We must give law enforcement the tools that they need to hold people accountable and we must ensure schools have proper safeguards to protect students and curb these practices,” the governor said. “I urge the House to swiftly pass this bill and get it to my desk for my signature.”
The attorney general’s office, which has taken over prosecution of the Piazza case, also expressed support.
“The Corman bill gives law enforcement the tools we need to hold students accountable when they engage in hazing that results in the death or serious bodily injury of a fellow classmate, as tragically happened in the death of Tim Piazza last year,” the office said in a statement.
Piazza, a sophomore engineering major from New Jersey, was pledging the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State. He drank copious amounts of alcohol during an alleged hazing ritual and later fell down the stairs. No one called for help for nearly 12 hours, and Piazza later died of head, lung and spleen injuries.
Eighteen members were charged in Piazza’s death, with offenses including hazing, reckless endangerment and furnishing alcohol to minors. Fourteen have been bound over for trial. More students were charged last fall and could face a preliminary hearing later this spring.
The case has drawn national attention and resulted in a crackdown on Greek life at Pennsylvania’s flagship university. Corman announced the hazing legislation during a break in a preliminary hearing in the Piazza case, held in Bellefonte in March.
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Corman said he introduced the bill because the state’s current hazing laws are “inflexible” and don’t give prosecutors the ability to tailor their cases to account for a variety of crimes, some of which are minor and others which could warrant felonies. He said he also hopes the new bill would encourage more people to seek help, noting that no one called for help immediately after Piazza fell.
“This would offer a safe harbor for someone to make that call,” he said.
He also thanked Piazza’s parents, Jim and Evelyn Piazza, for their input and support.
“They have channeled their pain and anguish … into a cause to make sure that other parents such as myself, or anyone else sending their child to college, will never have to go through what they had to go through,” Corman said.
The legislator noted that he was part of Greek life when he attended Temple University and while it “can do wondrous things…hazing, particularly this type of hazing, is something that we need to take a stand on.”
The legislation also has the support of the university. Eric Barron, president of Penn State, had attended Corman’s news conference announcing the legislation.
“From the beginning, we thought this was very important,” Barron said in an interview last week. “If it leads to severe outcomes … we need to have some kind of deterrent that is there that causes people to think twice. I wish that law had been in place for decades.”
Tom Kline, a lawyer who represents the Piazzas, said he hopes the bill serves as a model for other states. According to HazingPrevention.org’s website, only about 10 states currently call hazing a felony in cases where serious injury or death occur.
“We believe that this will put every appropriate stakeholder at risk for bad behavior which causes bodily injury,” Kline said.
If the law had been in effect when Piazza died, prosecutors would not have had to charge involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, he said. The hazing itself would have been a serious felony. Under current Pennsylvania law, hazing is a summary offense, resulting in a fine.
Nuwer questioned whether the forfeiture piece of the law would hold up in court, noting a University of Virginia case from 1991 where drugs were seized from three fraternities but the houses were owned by alumni not involved in the crime.
The North American Interfraternity Conference issued a statement in support of the “spirit” of the law, but planned to “provide critical recommendations” to enhance it. Asked about those recommendations, the conference did not elaborate.
The law’s deterrent effect shouldn’t be discounted, Kline said.
“This is also designed for college administrators, who will be able to go to orientations,” he said, “and be able to say if you haze, there are serious penalties to be paid if something goes badly wrong.”
©2018 The Philadelphia Inquirer