Grand jury: Penn State showed ‘shocking apathy’ to drinking

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Report released on fraternity pledge’s death as other universities take actions against dangerous behavior

Wire Reports

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — A grand jury’s report in the wake of a fraternity pledge’s drinking death said Friday that Penn State officials displayed “a shocking apathy” to dangers from excessive drinking and that its inaction allowed criminal acts to occur.

The report was released by a district attorney in Pennsylvania and recommends a series of changes that the school should undertake in the wake of the death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza in February.

In a statement, Penn State says it is committed to promoting safety and accountability in fraternities as it responds to the grand jury’s report. The school permanently banned Beta Theta Pi in March, saying its investigation found a persistent pattern of excessive and forced drinking, hazing and drug use and sales.

The report calls on state lawmakers to pass stronger laws to deter hazing and underage drinking. It also calls on Penn State to regulate drinking itself, rather than hold a fraternity council responsible, and for the university to expel students involved in hazing after they are “afforded full due process rights.”

“Anything less will fail to operate as a truly effective deterrent,” according to the report.

Piazza’s death occurred two days after he suffered a series of falls and consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol during a pledge bid night.

Security camera footage documented how Piazza became visibly inebriated early in the evening, after which fraternity members made ineffective and even counterproductive efforts to help him. He had suffered a fractured skull, shattered spleen and other injuries.

Fraternity members found him unconscious in the basement the next morning, but waited about 40 minutes before summoning help.

In a related development, the president of Florida State University says he has no timetable yet for reinstating Greek activities on campus after they were suspended in November following the death of a fraternity pledge there.

John Thrasher told The Associated Press in an interview that he will study suggestions from many groups over the coming month, seeking to have more definitive ideas on how to proceed by the end of January.

“I want to be deliberate about it and understand the ramifications of what we do,” Thrasher said in an interview as the university began wrapping up its fall semester. “There are no silver bullets for the cultural aspects that are out there as far as drinking. I can’t change all that. I think we will come up with good ideas and move ahead.”

Thrasher suspended all Greek activities on campus on Nov. 6, three days after what police described as the apparent alcohol-related death of Andrew Coffey, a 20-year old junior who was a pledge at Pi Kappa Phi.

Louisiana State universities also suspended Greek activities earlier this year due to student deaths, but Florida State’s move triggered a bigger impact nationally. Since Florida State’s announcement, Texas State, Ohio State and Michigan have also issued suspensions of Greek activities either due to a student’s death or incidents involving fraternities and sororities.

Thrasher said that during the past month he has talked to faculty, students, clergy and other university presidents. He also held closed-door meetings with student organizations.

“I think the fact we did what we did gave other campuses the courage to make a bold statement and get attention of folks which has been a positive,” Thrasher added.

During the suspension, the only events Greek life members can conduct are meetings with the university or their national chapter. Students are allowed to remain as residents in their fraternity or sorority houses. Thrasher also banned alcohol at all student organization events during the suspension.

A county grand jury will meet next week to consider whether anyone will be charged in Coffey’s death, which remains under investigation by FSU and Tallahassee police.

Tallahassee Police said indications showed alcohol was involved in Coffey’s death but the state Medical Examiner hasn’t yet released its report.

Thrasher said he will appear before the grand jury to discuss what happened from an overview standpoint and to discuss what he hopes to do moving forward. He is optimistic though that revised policies could be in place by late February.

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