Death at a Penn State Fraternity
October 6, 2017 4:05 PM   Subscribe

Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, reporting on the death of Tim Piazza, a Beta Theta Pi pledge at Penn State. A story of abuse, gas-lighting, and perverse incentives in the Greek system that has led to at least one death.
I asked Horras why no one at Beta Theta Pi had done anything about all the bad behavior those cameras must have recorded over the years since the reopening of the chapter. He said that no one could be expected to watch every single minute of film. He said that at some point, you have to trust young men to make the right decisions.
[TW for suicide, abuse, racism, and reckless negligence leading to death]

Previously on Metafilter. Also previously, 2014. And Previously 2013. Previously 2012.
posted by suelac (52 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
For heaven's sake, it's time to simply ban fraternities already!
Ban any university money or resources going to them, ban them from on-campus activities, expel any students found to be members. It's insane that in 2017 these organizations continue to operate.
posted by Krawczak at 4:36 PM on October 6 [37 favorites]


Holy shit. TW for realz.

Fraternities: a long tradition of teaching American men how they will never be held accountable for heinous acts committed on other human beings; and camaraderie?
posted by nikoniko at 4:38 PM on October 6 [38 favorites]


He said that at some point, you have to trust young men to make the right decisions.

sure, in defiance of the entire history of the human race, why not
posted by poffin boffin at 4:42 PM on October 6 [128 favorites]


maybe THIS TIME when i stick my hand into the fire something DIFFERENT will happen, how could we ever know
posted by poffin boffin at 4:42 PM on October 6 [31 favorites]


.
posted by sibboleth at 4:46 PM on October 6 [3 favorites]


We could try throwing fraternities into a fire...
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:55 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


One of the most horrifying things is that a local magistrate recently dismissed all but the most minor charges after the grand jury charged them. So they'll never face any real consequences.
posted by tavella at 4:58 PM on October 6 [8 favorites]


Yet an investigation into the fraternity resulted in its complete exoneration, most likely because the pledges refused to report what the brothers had done to them, which is typical.

I can (sort of) understand why the students would close ranks against whistle-blowers. It's in the best interest of the organism to expel the pathogen that threatens it's existence. But from earlier in the article:

[Tim's] parents become pariahs to the other members’ parents as they seek justice for their lost son.

This solidarity extends to the parents too? It could have been their own child! I suppose the logic follows that it wasn't and their kid shouldn't have their life ruined over a 'prank gone wrong'.

And so the same logic extends to the university administration at all levels from the coach to the dean, who have the reputation of the university to protect. And so revictimization is baked into the system.

In any case, if you treat grieving parents like pariahs, you're an asshole and you should have a good think about what you're teaching your sons. You're not protecting them with this behavior, you're just digging more graves.
posted by adept256 at 5:03 PM on October 6 [14 favorites]


This is a great article and I almost passed it over because I thought I knew the story, just because I had read about it before.

Has there ever been a horror movie where a bunch of Chads like this get picked off one by one, after the corrupt judge tosses the case out? Because it is sitting there waiting to be made.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:09 PM on October 6 [46 favorites]


This solidarity extends to the parents too? It could have been their own child!

it WAS their own children, standing there doing nothing, not reporting it, not stopping it, not caring enough about another human being to make a fuss, refusing to provide additional evidence. the parents don't want to admit to themselves or to the world their abject and pathetic failure at teaching their sons even the barest scraps of basic human decency.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:09 PM on October 6 [63 favorites]


This is a terrific piece of writing and reporting, and the last section is so harrowing I almost had to stop reading.
posted by martin q blank at 5:19 PM on October 6 [20 favorites]


addendum to the previous: I don't actually think or know that this is "a corrupt judge" in this matter; I was just being general -- I know nothing about this person. The prosecutor is refiling, though. She says that she has had this issue before with the magistrate, in an unrelated matter.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:27 PM on October 6 [3 favorites]


Doug Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., lawyer whose practice is built on representing plaintiffs in fraternity lawsuits

The fact that there's enough work there to sustain a legal practice, Jesus wept.
posted by saturday_morning at 5:33 PM on October 6 [14 favorites]


Penn State frats were cesspool when I was there in the 80s and I'd like to be surprised that they still are but given how well I know Happy fucking Valley, I'm really not.
posted by octothorpe at 5:34 PM on October 6 [5 favorites]


JFC. Burn this system to the ground.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:39 PM on October 6 [5 favorites]


This is, frankly, a better article than I expected from Flanagan, whose previous work has often been criticized on the blue. (She has written about the Greek system and its problems before, but it kind of got buried in this roundup.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:00 PM on October 6 [5 favorites]


"But just as typically, the chapter reverts to its previous behavior. Alumni visit their old house and explain how things ought to be done; private Facebook groups and GroupMe chats are initiated among brothers of different chapters, and information about secret hazing rituals is exchanged."

I'm an ex-fraternity member and I can attest that this is exactly why the problem will never get solved.

The underclassmen are continually told "be nice to the alumni. Kiss their ass and they'll contribute cash, booze, food, whatever". So they do, and they get. Over pitchers of free beer at Homecoming the kids are regaled with tales of the Good Ol' Days (tm) and How You Kids Have It So Easy and How Things Suck Compared to 1964. This Donald Abbey character bought the PSU Betas an entire fucking mansion.

So the kids emulate their heroes. And the cycle repeats. Except those tales that Alum '64 told you were highly embellished. He's trying to relive his glory days after all and will talk to anyone who will listen. That simple "we kept the pledges up all night once to memorize names of actives" morphs into a 96-hour exercise in sleep deprivation and overall torture.

It won't stop and it can't stop until the houses are shut down and the panhel system is erased from campus. My heart breaks for each and every parent of a lost child (especially the Piazzas, holy fucking shit), but sadly it's going to take something on the order of a class-action lawsuit against each and every national chapter to shut it all down and salt the earth forever.

And after all that, it will still try to make a comeback because of an alumnus with something to prove.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:17 PM on October 6 [26 favorites]


Penn State frats were cesspool when I was there in the 80s and I'd like to be surprised that they still are but given how well I know Happy fucking Valley, I'm really not.

I've never lived in State College, but I've visited a number of times, and walking past the frats there on party nights, the combination of gross and threatening is hard to describe.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:22 PM on October 6 [3 favorites]


I'm honestly confused as hell. The military takes young men and has hazing and heavy drinking, but somehow it never gets like this kind of insanity. Why are two superficially similar organizations so fucking different?
posted by corb at 6:25 PM on October 6 [3 favorites]


Why are two superficially similar organizations so fucking different?

Accountability, I would assume. Unless there are way more hazing-related deaths being covered up in the military than I'm aware of.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:28 PM on October 6 [8 favorites]


The military takes young men and has hazing and heavy drinking, but somehow it never gets like this kind of insanity. Why are two superficially similar organizations so fucking different?
The military has a chain of command with real power and a sense of mission. Public universities ultimately answer to legislatures that often don't respect their educational mission and that don't give them the power to really enforce rules. Plus, it's harder to enforce rules in a civilian setting anyway, because people have rights and whatnot. I'm honestly not sure it would be constitutional for a public university to kick students out for being members of an off-campus organization, and it's tough for universities to exercise oversight of organizations that are formally independent of the institution.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:32 PM on October 6 [20 favorites]


Why are two superficially similar organizations so fucking different?

Lack of on-base/on-ship access to massive amounts of alcohol is another reason. Which makes shit like the line-crossing ceremonies even harder to explain.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:34 PM on October 6 [2 favorites]


There's no lack of alcohol, but I think ArbitraryAndCapricious and restless_nomad have it right - no accountability. I guess I thought that frat hierarchy existed in some way, else why have the national organizations? Do the national people just not care if college students die? I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around the apathy.
posted by corb at 6:48 PM on October 6


The military takes young men and has hazing and heavy drinking, but somehow it never gets like this kind of insanity.


I'm sorry, what?

West Point pillow fight turns bloody, 30 injuries including concussions


I'm told West Point's orientation is entirely led by other cadets, and it's more or less like Lord of the Flies.
posted by gusandrews at 6:51 PM on October 6 [9 favorites]


If anyone needs a chaser for this article check out the one about the Order of Tents, next link down; basically when 70-90-year-old black women get together they do the exact opposite of frat hazing
posted by gusandrews at 6:56 PM on October 6 [13 favorites]


Penn State was pretty actively recruiting my daughter for a while. We turned them down very explicitly because of Joe Paterno and the disgusting way the university has handled that shitstorm and the awful Greek culture there. Put it in writing and everything. No way could we take blood money in exchange for tuition.
posted by cooker girl at 7:03 PM on October 6 [25 favorites]


So what exactly is the Shep Test?
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 7:15 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


I'm told West Point's orientation is entirely led by other cadets, and it's more or less like Lord of the Flies.

Two points about West Point:

1) It's not only a college, but an elite college that's very difficult to get into (money isn't an issue--everyone gets a full ride in exchange for 5 years' service after graduation and commisisoning--but admissions are highly competitive and usually require letters of recommendation from the applicant's Congressional member and at least one U.S. Senator) and has centuries of tradition. Plebe year is one of those traditions, and is done in very specific ways.

2) It's also by all accounts much better than it used to be. The issue of hazing is a very old one, and was the subject of a congressional hearing in 1901, although it was still severe for most of the 20th century; before reforms in the 1990s, up to 40% of each class dropped out before graduation, most of them in the first year. It finally occurred to someone that, no matter how much you try to rationalize mentally toughening young men and women, judging future officers on how well they succeed at getting other soldiers to quit was probably not a good idea.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:01 PM on October 6 [6 favorites]


So they'll never face any real consequences.

And they they knew damn well they wouldn't, either. That's why they had no reason to care about the security cameras or incriminating social media. These men have been getting away with stuff all their lives, and they've seen so many others like them do the same.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:04 PM on October 6 [3 favorites]


Looking at the picture of that frat house, I remember that I'm pretty sure I've been inside it. Or at least inside the front door to deliver a pizza. Being poor, I spent a lot of my weekend nights driving pizzas to shitty frat boys rather than partying myself.
posted by octothorpe at 8:18 PM on October 6 [2 favorites]


Re: the military vs frats: brutal hazing deaths do happen in the South Korean army. I don't think it's a matter of differences between armies vs. fraternities so much as the difference between how a specific army handles hazing vs. how a specific fraternity handles hazing. What that difference might be, I have no clue, I know nothing about armies or frats.

That article is horrific all the way down but the detail that really gets to me is that all the negligent/abusive kids got off scot-free and the one dude who did anything to help Piazza had to transfer schools and give up his financial aid. In other words, the only person who faced consequences for what happened that night was the guy who tried to help.
posted by perplexion at 8:38 PM on October 6 [38 favorites]


octothorpe: "Looking at the picture of that frat house, I remember that I'm pretty sure I've been inside it. Or at least inside the front door to deliver a pizza. Being poor, I spent a lot of my weekend nights driving pizzas to shitty frat boys rather than partying myself."

You've certainly seen it; it's one of the very few that are located on campus, rather than in town.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:02 PM on October 6 [1 favorite]


The Beta fraternity on my old college campus was known as the Rape Fraternity. It had developed a reputation for drugging and date-raping female attendees of its parties--which is not to say this didn't happen in other frats, just that was what Beta was known for. It is simply amazing what universities will tolerate.
posted by schroedinger at 10:09 PM on October 6 [2 favorites]


the only person who faced consequences for what happened that night was the guy who tried to help.

This is the true essence of the Penn State Experience.

People that are proud of Being Penn State? Generally they’re Bad People.

Capitalizations intended.
posted by aramaic at 11:50 PM on October 6 [8 favorites]


the disgusting way the university has handled that shitstorm and the awful Greek culture there

It's trivial compared to the whole mess, but I sure wish people would use a different word for this: There's nothing Greek about being an abusive drunken mob.
posted by Dr Dracator at 12:35 AM on October 7 [4 favorites]


That was gut-wrenching just to read.
I would not call for a dissolution of the fraternities, because:
1. When I was 19-20ish, I don't think I could have handled the situation in a mature way - I guess the recklessness and cruelty are just part of that age, and
2. That would be exactly like the 'solution' that, as per article, contributed to this tragedy, namely the hypocritical war on alcohol, (just like the hypocritical war on drugs) that does not make people stop drinking, but by criminalizing such behaviour, pushes it outside of the bounds of regulation.
posted by Laotic at 3:54 AM on October 7


I guess the recklessness and cruelty are just part of that age

They aren't, though. The student who wanted to help was exactly the same age as the others. The world is full of 18-19 year olds--men and women--who are volunteering, working, taking care of parents and siblings, being decent to each other in relationships. There is no biological necessity for them to be cruel and callous to the suffering of others at that age. I mean, I teach nineteen year olds and have been teaching students in that approximate age group, on and off, for about nine years. Some of them, like the rest of the human race, seem privileged and distanced from the suffering of others and being a little self-absorbed by ambition is also part of that life stage. But plenty of them basically radiate conscientiousness and friendliness and and eagerness to help make the world a better place; a significant minority of the references I write every summer are for applications to volunteer with charities that have no real bearing on the student's career ambitions.

That's why the article is so sad and infuriating. That charming little story of Tim Piazza making an elaborate point of taking his mother out to dinner is as natural and normal for all kids his age as anything else. All the kids in the story have the same potential for carefulness and kindness as they do for recklessness and cruelty. The problem is a culture that helps them to cultivate the latter and not the former, a culture that has been carefully built by a combination of privilege and money and making sure kids of a particular subclass hardly ever face consequences for their actions. Banning fraternities, or at least taking the regulation of fraternities out of their own hands, seems to me to an obvious first step to changing that culture.
posted by Aravis76 at 4:25 AM on October 7 [43 favorites]


That poor boy died at Penn State. Penn State has a very rotten rep for sweeping stuff under the carpet - for years and years and years. Heaven only knows what those fuckers have hidden that will never come to light. Fuck Penn State.

/alum, but ashamed

If any student needs help on any campus in the US, call the local police, NOT THE CAMPUS SCUM PIGS.
posted by james33 at 4:27 AM on October 7 [5 favorites]


The problem is a culture that helps them to cultivate the latter and not the former

Agreed. There's a story that gets perpetuated--about masculinity, belonging, being ill-treated so that you can turn around and treat someone else that way, getting away with dangerous and illegal actions, "brotherhood," favors--that's not just toxic, but deadly. Sometimes to the body. Often to the soul. Dear colleges and universities, you're more than just helpless bystanders who see nothing and know nothing. Don't help raise men this way and don't look the other way when they follow this storyline.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:55 AM on October 7 [11 favorites]


That charming little story of Tim Piazza making an elaborate point of taking his mother out to dinner is as natural and normal for all kids his age as anything else.

True. There’s no indication that Tim was any better or worse than the others. He was just the most unlucky.

They should ban the Greek system. I don’t think it will solve the hazing, as they will just move off campus. But at least it shifts the responsibility to investigate from the university, which has proven to be inept in this regard, to law enforcement. Alumni may complain, and donate directly to the frats instead of to the university, but over time, that will change as newer alumni replace the old.
posted by bluefly at 5:26 AM on October 7 [1 favorite]


I attended a small school in rural New York State in the late 70s and witnessed the deterioration of student behavior firsthand. It seemed to escalate during that period. In 1978 this happened. Notably at that time legal drinking age was 18, so there were no underage drinking charges. Instead there was a shockingly cavalier attitude towards alcohol use and its consequences by all involved.

The manner in which various parties interacted with Piazza brought back chilling memories of that whole scholastic drinking scene—oh, he’s so drunk, ha ha ha! Let’s prop him up and piss on him! Kids were given little to no serious guidance on potential perils while receiving messages via entertainment and advertising that alcohol is essential for glamor, romance and excitement.

Alcohol cannot excuse the behavior of the victim’s “friends,” but their ignorance about its effects vs serious distress was certainly a factor in the outcome.
posted by kinnakeet at 5:53 AM on October 7 [1 favorite]


.
posted by enfa at 6:02 AM on October 7


"the chapter’s only black member at the time"
I have several questions and thoughts, but one first. Does Penn State have a separate black Greek system, as do some other campuses?
posted by doctornemo at 6:09 AM on October 7 [1 favorite]


I went to the University of Michigan as an undergrad in the 1980s. UM had - still has, as far as I know - a huge and powerful Greek system. It appalled me as a punk-ish teenager, and I always avoided the events and proponents. Later on, some of my students there and elsewhere were in frats. I always tried to be polite and neutral, but, to be honest, didn't always succeed.
posted by doctornemo at 6:19 AM on October 7 [1 favorite]


doctornemo: ""the chapter’s only black member at the time"
I have several questions and thoughts, but one first. Does Penn State have a separate black Greek system, as do some other campuses?
"

There are black fraterities and sororities but also remember that Penn State is less than 5% African-American. Happy Valley is very white.
posted by octothorpe at 6:32 AM on October 7 [2 favorites]


This is the very definition of toxic masculinity. It's heartbreaking. The judicial system that refuses to take action is appalling and the colleges and universities have shown they won't take effective action.
posted by theora55 at 8:34 AM on October 7 [10 favorites]


This whole story was absolutely disgusting. That kid lay slowly dying for hours for nothing and the one guy who tried got thrown against a wall. What fuckers. It's awful how they'll all get off and nothing will happen.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:44 AM on October 7 [3 favorites]


This was incredibly hard to read. Being an observer of this situation and not acting on behalf of this victim, or even worse, participating... do they not have one ounce of decency in them? Like one moment of self-reflection that says, wait, this isn’t right? I cover my eyes during violent or gory movie scenes. I can’t imagine witnessing this in real life. I feel for the guy who did try to speak up.
posted by sucre at 10:52 AM on October 7 [2 favorites]


UM had - still has, as far as I know - a huge and powerful Greek system.

I went there in the late 90s, and I don't recall it being huge or powerful. It was largely a non-factor, although once in awhile someone would get shot in testicles with a BB gun, or they'd trash a ski resort, but I don't recall anything like this. I think the fact that all the houses were off campus, and therefore accountable to AAPD rather than just campus police, contributes to that. Many of them also strongly identify as Jewish, so I'm a bit uneasy about portraying them as powerful.

The article glosses over it, but the culture at Penn State is toxic in so many ways, and I'm not surprised this happened here.
posted by snickerdoodle at 11:33 AM on October 7


Caitlin mentions something interesting in her interview on NPR on Oct. 6, 2017:
FLANAGAN: I think that the universities and colleges of this country made a profound mistake in the middle of the last century, in the 1960s, when they decided that they were going to partner with fraternities and have offices of Greek life and have some kind of supervision over the fraternities. Fraternities were not created to be another nice club you could join like the chess club. They were created to be outlaw organizations, private clubs. And I think universities and colleges need to stop advertising them, promoting them, suggesting to parents that they have any ability to supervise their behavior. They have proven over and over again, in all of these events where we have dead young men, that they can't supervise them.
Sure, some fraternities and sororities, or at least some members, may do some good stuff, but when fraternities (and to a lesser extent, sororities) have a significant history of dead pledges and rape, it's time to shut them down. Want to gather together and do good things? Join any other club. Heck, want to drink with like-minded people? Join most any college club. There was plenty of students getting way too drunk at college radio station parties, but there was no hazing or chanting about rape (at Yale and Texas Tech, and I'm sure plenty of other institutions).

How Colleges Could Get Rid of Fraternities (Julia Ryan for The Atlantic, March 3, 2014)
Perhaps the most obvious way to end fraternities is for universities to simply remove Greek life from their campuses. “It’s not even really a turf war anymore between universities and Greek groups because it’s as as if universities have given up,” Alexandra Robbins, author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, said in an interview. “If higher education really wanted to get rid of Greek groups, they could. All universities would have to do is put their foot down, but they don’t.” Universities could say no Greek groups or events on campus and prohibit advertising for Greek life on campus. Elizabeth A. Armstrong, a sociologist at University of Michigan and co-author of Paying for the Party, suggested universities could quell the power of Greek life just by treating fraternities like other clubs: “[One method] would be to say okay you are not so special. You do not get the special attention of the dean. We are going to actually allow other student groups on campus equal power,” she said. “We are going to supervise you just as much as everybody else.”
Except I bet enough people in college and university administrations "survived" their hazing and remember the rest fondly, or get major donations from fraternities and sororities, so they look the other way, or both.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:34 PM on October 7 [4 favorites]


Or worse, the school officials just consider "Greeks" to be a part of university life since forever, and assume that they can't change it, because it's integral to the advanced education experience. Here's the thing: it'll never change, until it does. It'll always be there, until it isn't.

Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo, CA) cancelled it's major school-sponsored/ supported open house/ school showcase in 1990 after it became a riot. The school said "hey, maybe this is a bad idea, let's stop." So they did. But then the school brought it back, and lo and behold, it became a catalyst for violence and riots, again. But between 1990 and 2015, there was the SLO Mardi Gras controversy of 2004, in which the city ended the annual night time Mardi Gras parade, because it, too, had become a destination for rowdy youth from far and wide.

In short: there's no reason to give young idiots an excuse to get drunken and violent, even if it's "part of the university experience," because it all can be stopped at any time. The school and/or city just says "we won't support it any more," and be consistent with consequences for non-compliance and unacceptable behavior.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:44 PM on October 7 [2 favorites]


I wanted to scream and cry and wish grievous harm on everyone who played a role in this young man's death.

This part, among many others, stands out to me:

But it is also true that he is setting off to get jumped by a gang, and he won’t survive.

That part is so essentially true that it stunned me.

So many people in this country -- including more than a few "I'm pretty liberal, but..." types -- are scared of young black and Latino males in gangs, but the young men who killed Tim Piazza and many many more like at universities all across the nation who will go on to be our rulers.

They will be investment bankers, upper management, lobbyists, state legislators, and members of Congress. And they will have the same heartlessness and disregard for anyone who is not them and who is not part of their tribe, the same instinct to preserve themselves and their positions at all costs, that they exhibited as undergraduates.

Who's going to do more damage to more people in a lifetime: these fellows or the imagined stereotypical Blood or Crip?
posted by lord_wolf at 6:57 PM on October 7 [24 favorites]


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