Prosecutors Taking Tougher Stance in Fraternity Hazing Deaths

After downing a dangerous amount of alcohol and suffering severe internal injuries during a fraternity hazing, a 19-year-old college sophomore died. Not long ago, the story might have ended there, except for some hand-wringing and litigation.

Instead, prosecutors filed criminal charges on Friday against 18 Penn State students in the death of the man, Timothy Piazza.

The case offers the latest evidence of the harder line prosecutors have started taking when initiation rituals end in death from alcohol or physical abuse. At Baruch College, Northern Illinois University, Fresno State University and elsewhere, fraternity hazing deaths that might once have been labeled regrettable accidents have resulted in criminal charges against students.

“Go back a generation or two, and hazing was accepted conduct, part of the fraternity experience, part of the football experience,” said David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national group that offers training for prosecutors. “Now it’s no longer ‘boys will be boys, and why is the prosecutor getting involved in this?’ I think there is much more acceptance out there that this is unlawful behavior.”

Colleges and universities have also taken a tougher stance, at least outwardly, after being battered by reports about sexual assault and binge drinking. Universities have shut down hundreds of offending fraternity chapters, and some have prohibited freshman-year pledging or imposed restrictions on alcohol. A smaller number have withdrawn formal recognition of all Greek-letter groups, forcing them to operate only off campus and without any official ties.

What is less clear is how much of a difference their actions make.

“This is a huge challenge because we don’t own the houses, we don’t own the property, we aren’t the national” organization governing fraternities, Penn State’s president, Eric Barron, said Monday in an interview.

Fraternities and their national umbrella groups dispute studies, which Dr. Barron cited, showing that fraternity members are disproportionately connected to binge drinking and sexual assault. They note that other organizations, like sports teams, also engage in hazing; at Florida A&M University, ritual abuse in the marching band killed a student in 2011, and several band members were prosecuted. Some of the deadly episodes that have been labeled fraternity hazing — at the University at Albany and Virginia State University — involved loosely organized groups with no national affiliation or school recognition.

There are no figures kept by the government or higher education groups of hazing incidents, student deaths, excessive drinking or fraternity discipline; individual schools and fraternities generally resist sharing internal data. But in 2013, Bloomberg News documented more than 60 deaths over eight years in fraternity activities, many of them involving initiation rituals for would-be members and heavy drinking.

Dr. Barron said university presidents around the country had been expanding educational programs to discourage drinking, creating stronger rules and, when all else failed, revoking fraternity charters. But fraternities have found creative ways to avoid new restrictions, he said; some whose charters have been revoked have simply “created underground organizations and just changed their names.”

Douglas E. Fierberg, a lawyer who specializes in suing fraternities and universities, said that while a few colleges had changed, most were unwilling to alienate alumni donors who belonged to fraternities.

“The central problem is that in a fraternity house, kids, most of whom cannot legally drink, are in charge of getting and serving alcohol,” he said.

He noted that Mr. Piazza was left unconscious for hours before anyone sought help. “That would not have happened in an on-campus dorm,” Mr. Fierberg said.

Experts say the increase in prosecutions stems not only from a shift in attitudes but also from the ubiquity of electronic evidence. Security cameras in the fraternity house provided crucial information about Mr. Piazza’s last hours, and in other instances, text messages and Google searches have contributed to criminal cases.

The Penn State prosecution is one of the largest ever brought in a fraternity misconduct case, and it is unusual in that eight defendants face felony counts.

But it is not the first scandal for the university, which was rocked by revelations about Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach who was convicted of child molestation, and by the prosecution of former administrators, including a former president, who were found guilty of failing to take action to stop Mr. Sandusky.

Nor was Beta Theta Pi the first fraternity to get into trouble at Penn State, whose hard-drinking Greek scene is well known. In 2015, one fraternity was found to have kept a secret Facebook page with photos of naked, apparently unconscious women — some taken without their knowledge — and evidence of underage drinking, hazing and drug distribution. No one was prosecuted.

Despite the adverse publicity, Penn State remains a coveted destination, with applications up about 30 percent from before the Sandusky case broke.

The parents of two former Penn State students, Adam and Denise Lipson, say that they warned administrators in 2014 and 2015 of fraternity hazing that included coercing first-year students to drink to excess, but that their concerns were ignored. Dismayed by that atmosphere, their sons transferred to other universities, where they found less emphasis on alcohol and less pressure to drink.

“Our sons are not prudes, they’re not anti-frat, they’re not anti-alcohol, but they couldn’t believe how far it went,” Ms. Lipson said. “There was this underlying acceptance of it.”

Dr. Barron said concerns about drinking had been taken seriously for some time.

While some fraternity houses are known trouble spots, Dr. Barron said, Beta Theta Pi was considered a model.

In a note to the campus community last month, he gave a harsh appraisal of fraternity conduct and warned, “It could mean the end of Greek life at Penn State.”

Mr. Fierberg was skeptical. “The Greeks will be around long after everyone has turned their attention elsewhere,” he said.

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