Updated at 3:15 p.m. ET
A grand jury tasked with investigating broad issues of hazing at Penn State has issued a blistering report asserting that leaders at the university were well aware of pervasive misbehavior in the Greek system and failed to take action.
Penn State, responding in court, said that the university has “shown an unwavering commitment to promoting safety and accountability” and that alcohol abuse at college is a “national problem,” not a university-specific one.
The report, made public by the Centre County, Pa., District Attorney’s Office, was released after the death of 19-year-old fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza earlier this year. It includes numerous descriptions of fraternity practices that violate the law, campus policy or basic safety principles. Numerous allegations of sexual assault were detailed.
Hazing is “rampant and pervasive” and includes “sadistic” rituals that “surge to unfathomabl[e] peaks of depravity,” the report says. Penn State fraternities require excessive drinking to the point of being life-threatening or demand that pledges exercise to the point of exhaustion on floors covered in vomit, bleach or broken glass, according to the report. Some hazing rituals allegedly involved pledges being forced to drink concoctions designed to make them ill or required pledges to kill and skin animals.
Efforts to deter dangerous activities, through the criminal system or through the school, have “clearly failed,” the report found.
Penn State administrators were “remarkably undisturbed” by complaints about excessive and dangerous alcohol abuse at fraternities, the report says, and “it was only a matter of time before a death would occur during a hazing event.”
Powerful alumni with ties to the Greek system, many of whom were substantial financial supporters of the university, helped push against any actions that would change the culture on campus.
The jury, initially tasked with investigating a single deadly incident, “determined it would be failing its duty to the Commonwealth as a whole if it did not report to the public” what it learned about hazing dangers in general.
“Whatever values Greek life previously held dear, the Greek life the Grand Jury saw focuses mainly on excessive drinking and social debauchery,” the report states.
The jury called for “profound changes on college campuses and communities in Pennsylvania.” Their recommendations included strengthening laws against providing alcohol to minors, establishing a hazing hotline and a “pledge’s bill of rights,” enforcing existing policies to protect students, adequately funding and staffing offices that monitor and support Greek life, training employees and students to recognize and report hazing, and instituting a compulsory reporting system.
In addition to its response in court, Penn State responded with a public statement expressing disappointment with the grand jury report.
“The Report misunderstands or entirely disregards Penn State’s tangible commitment to improving safety, as well as public universities’ relationship with alumni boards, housing corporations and national organizations, which have oversight of these private organizations,” the school said in a statement. “Widespread problems of binge drinking and hazing persist at universities across the country, as tragic headlines in recent weeks have shown. However, it is not a solution to simply point an accusatory finger.”
“A number of the recommendations in today’s Grand Jury Report are similar to safety initiatives already implemented or in progress,” the school says.
The report was triggered by Piazza’s death in February. The same grand jury previously considered the criminal charges brought against former members of Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity Piazza was pledging.
As NPR has reported, Piazza was served at least 18 drinks in 82 minutes, then drunkenly fell head-first down a flight of stairs. He first fell at 11 p.m. and became unconscious. He awoke, appearing to be in pain and fell again at 5 a.m., but an ambulance wasn’t called until after 10:45.
Surveillance footage from inside the fraternity house, shown to the grand jury, revealed disturbing scenes of fraternity brothers slapping, hitting and sitting on an unresponsive Piazza, as Caitlin Flanagan reported for The Atlantic. One younger member of the fraternity was reportedly seen pointing at Piazza’s body and attempting to persuade his brothers to take action, but he was rebuffed.
Even in the morning, when Piazza was found gray, rigid and unconscious, fraternity members spent more than 40 minutes “trying to manipulate his body to dress him, and searching online for the remedy to head injuries” before they called 911, the grand jury writes. Piazza, who suffered a ruptured spleen and traumatic brain injuries, died at the hospital.
In September, the most serious charges in that case were dismissed by a judge, who ruled that misdemeanor charges were more appropriate.
The criminal case against the former fraternity members is ongoing.
The report released Friday, while initiated in response to that case, is broader in scope.
The grand jury considered not just Piazza’s death, but also the hazing of Marquise Braham, who killed himself in 2014 after hazing at Penn State, Altoona.
Penn Live described the allegations in that case:
“When Marquise pledged the Phi Sigma Kappa house in 2013, according to a civil lawsuit, the brothers pointed a gun at a pledge’s head, forced pledges to drink alcohol excessively until filling trash cans with vomit and deprived them of sleep for up to 89 hours. Marquise and other pledges also allegedly were forced to fight each other, choose between snorting a line of cocaine or being sodomized while being videotaped; and kill, gut and skin animals.”
The jury also heard from James Vivenzio, “a whistleblower who alerted State College police to a fraternity Facebook page featuring photos of unconscious women in 2015,” Penn Live writes:
“Vivenzio suffered at the hands of Kappa Delta Rho fraternity members, according to a lawsuit he filed in 2015, including cigarette burns to his chest, forced drinking of hard liquor until he vomited and force-fed drinking from a bucket filled with a concoction of hot sauce, liquor, cat food, urine and other liquid and semi-solid ingredients, the smell of which was often enough to induce vomiting.”
The report also describes the death of Joe Dado, who was found dead at Penn State in 2009, and briefly noted that “the dangers of Greek life” affect other colleges in the U.S., as well.