Inside the Penn State fraternity battle sparked by one student’s tragic death

This spring, the 140-year tradition of Greek life at Penn State University nearly came to a dramatic end.

The university’s constellation of fraternities and sororities – exclusive, Greek-letter social clubs that encompass nearly 20 per cent of the student population – seemed on the verge of collapse.

In a single weekend in April, nine of the university’s fraternities and sororities had violated the university’s restrictions on drinking and social events. One fraternity had already been suspended for hazing its pledges and circulating photos of nude, unconscious women online. Members of Greek life were 50 per cent more likely to binge drink, and 50 per cent more likely to be sexually assaulted, than their fellow students, according to internal statistics.

And two months earlier, a 19-year-old student had fallen down a flight of concrete stairs at a fraternity house and died.

The death of Timothy Piazza, an engineering student and Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge, put Penn State on the frontlines of an ongoing, national battle: How to control fraternities and sororities. Even now, six months on, progress has been slow – and controversial.

Piazza had pledged himself to what the school described as a “model” fraternity. The Beta Theta Pi brothers outwardly maintained a “no alcohol” and “no hazing” policy, as mandated by their national organisation. Their off-campus fraternity house – which housed a large portion of their newer members – had been recently renovated, with security cameras installed throughout the building. They hosted honours students for a lunch on their front lawn every year.

But on the night of 2 February, court records claim, the brothers of Beta Theta Pi brought 14 underclassman pledges into their basement and forced them to perform a binge-drinking ritual known as “the gauntlet”.

Over the span of two minutes, Piazza and his fellow fraternity hopefuls were said to have consumed the equivalent of four to five drinks each. Apparently goaded by the senior fraternity brothers, they shot-gunned a beer, chugged from a wine bag, and took 10-second-long “pulls” from a handle of vodka. Then, they went upstairs to a party and drank more.

At one point during the night, a forensic pathologist determined, Piazza had a blood alcohol content between .26 and .36 per cent – more than four times the legal limit.

Less than an hour and a half into the party, Piazza can be seen in surveillance footage stumbling through the house,…

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