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In an effort to learn more about fraternities, the Piazzas— who had not taken part in Greek life when they were college students—had attended an information session while at a Penn State parents’ weekend in the fall of 2014 for their older son, Mike, who was then a freshman. Evelyn recalled that a university official told the crowd of parents that there was no hazing at the university. An uncomfortable silence followed, until one by one, parents informed the man that their sons were currently being hazed.
When I tried to confirm this incident with Penn State, the university denied, in a series of baffling phone calls and emails, that it could have happened. “We don’t doubt the Piazzas’ sincerity,” one of the exchanges begins, before heaping doubt on their assertion. I brought up all of this at the Piazzas’ table.
“We got a letter from another parent who was there,” Jim said. “He remembered it just the way we did.” I now have a copy of that letter, and have spoken with the parent who wrote it; the account verifies everything the Piazzas remember and identifies the man who made the remarks as the university’s then-head of Greek life, Roy Baker.
Looking back at the past two decades at Penn State, we see a university grappling with its fraternity problem in ways that pitted concerned administrators against a powerful system, and achieving little change. In 1997, five members of a fraternity showed up at University Health Services with what the physician there strongly suspected were hazing injuries; in the ominous phrase of the director of Health Services, the injuries had been caused by “something that someone else was doing to them.” The president of the university at the time, Graham Spanier (who is currently fighting a jail sentence resulting from his role in the Sandusky scandal), became involved. “We will not tolerate hazing at Penn State,” he said. 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. The episode, which was covered in the student newspaper, reinforced a message that would have tragic consequences for Tim Piazza: that seeking medical help for an injured pledge invites scrutiny and perhaps serious trouble.