In February 2017, 19-year-old Timothy Piazza died after a fraternity hazing ritual students called the ‘gauntlet’ at Penn State University. Piazza consumed ’18 drinks in less than 90 minutes’, given to him by fraternity members before he fell down a flight of stairs and sustained traumatic head and spleen injuries.
In September the same year, 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver died at Louisiana State University after a hazing ritual called ‘bible study’. In the game, Gruver had to answer questions on the fraternity’s history, being forced to drink alcohol for each question he got wrong at the Phi Delta Theta house. He was found dead the following morning with a blood-alcohol level of .495, over 5.5 times the legal limit.
At Florida State University on 3 November 2017, 20-year-old Andrew Coffey participated in a ‘big brother’ ritual at a fraternity party. He passed out and did not regain consciousness, with his autopsy revealing his alcohol level as .447. A Grand Jury investigation into his death found that while Coffey’s alcohol consumption “…was not physically forced, the acts the culminated in his death occurred within an environment of hazing.”
On 13 November 2017 at Texas State University, 20-year-old Matthew Ellis was taking part in a pledge at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity when he was found unconscious with excessive alcohol being suspected as contributing to his death.
In many universities, social organizations for students are in place to promote social interaction and a feeling of inclusion for new and existing students. In the United States, these are most often called fraternities for males and sororities for females. During their time on campus, members live in the house of their organization once they have been accepted as members. It is this membership initiation were hazing often occurs in the order of ‘pledging’.
New students participate in the rituals over an evening, a weekend, or in some cases a week in order to be accepted as a fraternity or sorority members. Students taking part, known as ‘pledges’, are looking to join the group, be accepted amongst their peers, and the rituals they go through are generally thought of as harmless teenage fun and part of university life.
The practice of hazing, however, has become very controversial in recent years, more so after the deaths of a number of students. Hazingprevention.org defines hazing as:
“Any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule and risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”
Deaths from hazing occur most often due to the excessive alcohol that is routinely part of the rituals and games played. Other deaths have happened due to falls and accidents during the course of the rituals or death after the event, believed to have been caused through participation in a hazing event the previous evening. Hank Huwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana, has been researching and reporting on hazing deaths within universities for the last 40 years.
“While collegiate deaths from hazing in the United States are as common today as they were forty to forty-eight years ago, there now occur similar tragic losses worldwide, particularly in the Philippines and India.” He says in his book ‘Hazing: Destroying Young Lives’. “There now has been one death every year (and many years multiple deaths) in our colleges from hazing in the 1961–2017 time frame,” he continues.
In data compiled by Hank Huwer and illustrated by the Economist, the dramatic increase in deaths from the 1970’s to last year is clear, jumping from less than 10 deaths a decade to up to over 30 in the last two decades alone.
In December 2017, in an article focusing on a ‘Deadly Year in Fraternity Hazing’ Time reported the President of Dillard University in New Orleans commenting, “So let’s not talk about hazing. Call it what it is — murder, manslaughter, assault and battery.”
A number of serious criminal charges have been filed in relation to some of these deaths, holding members of the fraternity, and in some cases the fraternity itself, responsible for the loss of a young life.
In 2013, Chun ‘Michael’ Deng visited a rental house, CNN reported, for an Asian American fraternity ‘crossing over’ weekend at Pennsylvania University. There he participated as a pledge in a ritual called ‘the glass ceiling”. Blindfolded and weighted down with a heavy backpack, Deng was told to run through a line of fraternity brothers who purposefully tried to prevent him by pushing and tackling him to the ground.
It was during this ritual that Deng fell and hit his head, knocking him unconscious. His fraternity brothers did not immediately call for medical help, instead, they attempted to wake him and looked up his symptoms on the internet. When 911 was finally called two hours later, Deng was rushed to hospital but it was too late. Upon investigation, police ruled his death as a homicide resulting from the actions taken during the ritual Deng had participated in that evening.
In November 2017, the Pi Delta Psi fraternity responsible for the ritual was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and assault. They were banned from Pennsylvania for 10 years and ordered to pay more than $100,000 in damages. In January this year, Kenny Kwan, Raymond Lam, Charles Lai, and Sheldon Wong, all fraternity brothers involved on the night Deng died, were sentenced to prison time ranging from 342 days to two years for their involvement in his death, with a seven-year probation time to follow after their release.
While students actively participate in these hazing rituals, the irresponsible and reckless behaviour of the fraternity brothers carrying out these drinking games, most often involving copious amounts of alcohol consumed over a very short period of time, leaves them open to criminal prosecution. Furthermore, what seems to be common in these deaths is that in many cases once the student is found to be unresponsive, unconscious or even severely injured, emergency services are not immediately called, contributing the death of the young individual.
Of course, none of these young men wanted their pledges to get hurt or die but fail to recognize the risks they are taking. The criminal charges and convictions that have resulted from some of these deaths may now be sending the message that such behaviours cannot be tolerated and anyone involved in these dangerous games for nothing more than a laugh are risking a conviction and jail time. More importantly, they are being held responsible for the death of a young man they should have been looking out for, not exploiting for their own amusement.
In the case of Timothy Piazza at Penn State University, the fraternity members he was with did not seek medical attention for him, instead, they carried him to different locations of the house, tried to wake him, and only called emergency services the following morning, with all actions caught on camera. After his death, a grand jury was impaneled to investigate the practice of hazing and the death of the 19-year-old.
The grand jury report called hazing “rampant and pervasive” within the university and highlighted the university’s history of ‘turning a blind eye’ to such problems within fraternities. They recommended any student who participated in hazing should be expelled from the university under “mandatory and unequivocal” new rules.
“In the past three years alone, twelve college students at twelve different institutions have lost their lives as a result of hazing involving alcohol,” the report said. “Reduced to its core, hazing is simply a group of individuals preying on the vulnerabilities of someone who simply wants to be their friend. Hazing succeeds and persists because the offenders recognize that the initiate’s desire for brotherhood can be traded as currency to unleash cruelty for the offenders’ own amusement,” it stated.
The LA Times reported in November 2017 that another 10 members of the fraternity were now being charged after a further video was discovered showing basement footage of Tim Piazza being given multiple drinks by fraternity brothers, one which had been deleted by a fraternity member in order to hide the true events of the night Piazza died. This brought the number of people charged in relation to his death to 26. Charges against the group range from alcohol violations to aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter.
Tim Piazza’s father, Jim Piazza said in a press conference the same month, “Tim was a happy and caring human being and a wonderful son who just wanted to join an organization to find friendships and camaraderie. Instead he was killed at the hands of those he was seeking friendship from.”