- Three former Penn State fraternity brothers were sentenced to jail on Tuesday over a pledge’s 2017 death.
- Timothy Piazza, 19, died after an alcohol-fuelled hazing ritual that left him with a traumatic brain injury.
- One hazing expert has told INSIDER that prosecutions like these are rare and jail sentences for fraternity members are even rarer.
A judge on Tuesday sentenced three former Penn State fraternity brothers to jail over a pledge’s death in 2017, when a chaotic, alcohol-fuelled hazing ritual led to what prosecutors called the “slow and painful death” of Timothy Piazza, 19.
Judge Brian Marshall of Pennsylvania’s Centre County sentenced Michael Bonatucci, 21; Luke Visser, 21; and Joshua Kurczewski, 20, to short jail terms that ranged from 30 days to nine months. Another defendant, 21-year-old Joseph Sala, was ordered to serve three to 10 months of house arrest.
All four of the defendants pleaded guilty to hazing-related charges.
Piazza sustained a traumatic brain injury after downing 18 drinks within 82 minutes and falling down a flight of stairs into the basement of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house in February 2017. The fraternity members didn’t call 911 until 12 hours later.
But Tuesday was a stunning instance of a successful criminal prosecution against fraternity members over a hazing incident. And though some have already criticised the sentences as being too lenient – especially when contrasted with severe punishments that African American youths often receive – one hazing expert told INSIDER that prosecutions like these were rare and jail sentences for fraternity members were even rarer.
Gregory Parks, a law professor and associate dean of research at Wake Forest University, said it’s a small step out of a larger “jigsaw puzzle” of hazing on college campuses.
Hazing cases are far more often litigated through civil courts, and Parks said that doesn’t effectively deter hazing the same way that criminal prosecution and a jail sentence does.
Beyond that, he said, it’s crucial that sentences like this be used to educate current and future fraternity members who might think they can get away with hazing.
“If you’re still an undergrad, you’re not thinking about what it means to have to pay someone $US100,000, or your parents’ homeowners insurance has to pay out $US100,000,” Parks said. “But sitting in a jail, and even prison, if it’s longer than a year, certainly does resonate with you.”
‘Prosecution is going to move a needle’
Parks said gauging the punishment for hazing-related incidents was a delicate balancing act. While research shows that the likelihood of being caught is a more effective deterrent for crime than a harsh sentence, Parks said giving light sentences risked not send much of a message at all.
“Prosecution is going to move a needle more than a civil sanction,” he said. “If it’s a light prosecution, it might not add up to much, compared to a more severe criminal sanction.”
A further problem that throws a wrench in colleges and organisations’ anti-hazing strategies, Parks said, is the racial element.
He said he seriously doubted that African American fraternity members would have received such light jail terms had they been convicted of the same crimes.
“I think there’s sympathy for young, educated, good-looking white men,” Parks said. “I think that’s part of it. I think folks feel sympathetic towards them even though the victim is usually of the same background. So the organisations have to advocate in ways that deter harmful behaviour, but are also mindful of how race pays a major role in the criminal-justice system, and how harsher sentences are meted out against people of colour.”
Regardless, Parks said hazing couldn’t be addressed with a single solution, nor could it be tackled only by the criminal-justice system. Unless fraternities and sororities more effectively identify and target chapters and members who violate rules and the law, criminal sanctions won’t ultimately do much.
“Imagine this as a jigsaw puzzle, a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, and the sanction is five pieces of the jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “You mete out more severe criminal sanctions, maybe you’ve got two or three of those five pieces, but you still got 997 other pieces you’ve got to be thinking about. While, yes, this helps and sends a message, there are a lot of other things to consider.”
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