Texas State University, my alma mater, became the latest college to crack down on fraternities and sororities following the death of a pledge. Matt Ellis, a 20-year-old sophomore, died Monday after attending an off-campus Phi Kappa Psi party. Officials say Ellis participated in an initiation ritual that likely included alcohol.
University President Denise Trauth on Tuesday suspended all Greek organization activities and ordered a full investigation into the system. The findings probably won’t surprise anyone. Fraternities and sororities are known for their out-of-control parties and outrageous behavior, excesses that often provide fodder for comedy skits and movies. (Animal House, anyone?)
But behavior once dismissed as boorish or crass has become increasingly lethal. And no one is laughing anymore.
The most shocking case, at Pennsylvania State University, continues to make headlines for the sickening disregard students showed for someone yearning to become their “brother.” Prosecutors in Centre County, Penn., filed new charges Monday against 10 more members of Beta Theta Pi in the death of 19-year-old pledge Tim Piazza. During their initial investigation, police discovered one of the fraternity members had erased security camera footage from a basement bar. With help from the FBI, investigators recovered the footage this month.
Recordings already obtained by prosecutors provided hard-to-watch details of Piazza’s final hours, but the new material shows a mind-boggling disregard for human life. Fraternity members gave Piazza at least 18 drinks in less than 90 minutes. He eventually suffered a fractured skull, shattered spleen, and other injuries after falling down the steps of the fraternity house basement. The recovered footage shows fraternity members further abusing Piazza as he lay unconscious on the basement floor, pouring liquid on him, and strapping a loaded backpack to him. They presumably thought he was just drunk and could sleep it off. He lay on the basement floor all night, and no one bothered to summon help until the next morning.
Piazza’s heartbroken parents described the defendants’ behavior as egregious, noting they had to know giving someone so much alcohol over a short period of time could be dangerous. A judge in September threw out the most serious charges, manslaughter and aggravated assault, but District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller refiled them after reviewing the basement footage. Will the new evidence be enough to convince the judge Piazza’s death amounted to more than a tragic accident? —L.J.