It should not take the death of a college sophomore during a fraternity hazing ritual to teach us the basics of human kindness and consequences.
It should not take a wrongful death lawsuit, as was filed a week ago against 28 onetime Pennsylvania State University fraternity members from Malvern, Downingtown, Philadelphia, Wayne, Phoenixville, West Chester, and beyond, to keep that incredibly important conversation going.
It should not have required a criminal case against the young men implicated in a fraternity pledge’s death, nor the airing of a graphic frat house video showing Tim Piazza’s wrenching final hours on Earth two years ago this month, to illustrate the devastating cruelty and moral indifference that some of our brightest young souls are capable of even after gaining entry into elite, competitive, acclaimed universities such as Penn State’s main campus.
And yet, if the ongoing collateral damage from the horrific Piazza case helps end our societal love affair with bullying, I’ll take it.
If the prospect of civil damages against these young men helps us all think deeply about better helping children become responsible and compassionate adults, then perhaps there will be enduring good from the bitter sadness of this tragedy.
Bullying is wrong when you are 9 years old. At age 19 and in college, it is quite simply unacceptable. Yet even after Tim’s death, booze-fueled hazing has continued, as Penn State reported a few weeks ago to comply with a new anti-hazing law in Pennsylvania.
It is hard to classify much of what happened that February night in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house as anything but a form of bullying.
A pledge seeks to win favor with a coveted social group. Members of the group preside over a cruel ritual of initiation, with no evident compunction about serving up overdoses of humiliation and alcohol. The situation spirals out of control. The pledge falls down the stairs. More horrible things happen. For hours, no one calls 911. The young man later dies.
Any claim of youthful indiscretion no longer carries weight in our culture. For years in the United States, we increasingly have talked about the perils of bullying. And yet, here we see undergrads legitimizing this brand of inhumanity as legal adults.
Young men and women in college today must navigate an ultra-competitive admissions scene to get in. The process tends to favor those with family members who attended before them, or with sterling academic credentials from high school, sports league pedigrees, summer internships — the list goes on and on.
How, then, are so many not learning this simple life credo: Cruelty is inhumane and to be avoided.
I asked one of the region’s foremost experts on bullying, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia psychologist Stephen Leff, if I was making too much of a leap in comparing the dynamics of college hazings generally to a form of bullying.
“There’s nothing wrong with rituals, with traditions, as long as they’re not humiliating, unsafe, or making someone feel uncomfortable,” said Leff, co-director of the Violence Prevention Initiative at CHOP. “If they’re humiliating, unsafe, or making someone uncomfortable, then I think it does meet the definition of bullying. And I do think your parallel is a good one.”
In the Piazza case, the details are hard to stomach.
Here is just some of what my colleagues Susan Snyder and Erin McCarthy reported from a June 2018 court hearing during which prosecutors shared a painfully graphic frat house video from the night the North Jersey teen was fatally injured:
“Among the excerpts aired on a small screen in the front of the courtroom was one showing pledges — including 19-year-old Piazza, dressed that night in a blazer, collared shirt, and tie — guzzling vodka at one station, then rushing to the next to consume a can of beer in a single swig. ... four members carrying Piazza’s limp body and putting him on a couch after he fell down the basement stairs. Over the next hours, members are shown slapping the sophomore engineering student from Lebanon, N.J., pouring liquid on him, sitting on his legs, rolling over the top of him, struggling to put a backpack on him — an apparent attempt to prevent him from choking on his vomit — and even throwing a shoe at him. ... At one point, he rises to his knees and cradles his head in his hands. At another, he lies in a fetal position. No one helps. A bare-chested Piazza appears to be alone for hours as he writhes and rolls around on the floor.”
CHOP teaches elementary and middle school students that no one should feel powerless in these situations.
“Everybody can be a positive bystander,” Leff said. “Sometimes the choice may be to walk away and get help, sometimes it may be to be vocal, sometimes it may be to comfort the victim. You have choices.”