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Colleges grapple with the deadly combination of drinking and hazing

Tim Piazza died after falling down a flight of stairs during pledge night at a Penn State fraternity.
Tim Piazza died after falling down a flight of stairs during pledge night at a Penn State fraternity.Read moreCourtesy of Evelyn Piazza

A student drinking at a fraternity party at Lehigh University in April fell down a set of stairs and wound up in intensive care.

And that wasn't the only near-fatal episode the Bethlehem-based university has experienced recently with student drinking. There were three others, one also connected to a fraternity.

"Specifically, we've had four close calls in the last two months," university administrators wrote in an April 5 email to the campus. "Without the intervention of [Lehigh police] and others, some or all of these students would have died. It is particularly distressing that while these students bear primary responsibility for their own actions, they were surrounded by others who did not intervene."

Elements of the incidents were eerily reminiscent of the Feb. 2 incident at Pennsylvania State University in which an intoxicated 19-year-old, Tim Piazza, fell down stairs during pledge night at Beta Theta Pi and no one called for emergency help until the next morning, nearly 12 hours later.

On the same night as Piazza's ultimately fatal fall, half a state away, Lehigh police broke up an unregistered party at Delta Chi and transported an extremely intoxicated student to the hospital. Two fraternity members were charged with reckless endangerment for not seeking treatment for the person, but those charges have since been withdrawn.

"It is imperative we act to prevent a senseless death of one of our own," Lehigh officials said in the email to the campus, which referred to the Penn State case.

Lehigh officials said Friday they plan to convene a task force to look at high-risk drinking on the 5,080-student campus, with the number and intensity of cases on the rise.

It is a seemingly universal problem that universities have been grappling with for years, with little success. Most acute has been the issue of high-risk drinking and hazing, at times associated with fraternities and sororities.

The University of Pennsylvania last week announced new procedures for dealing with unrecognized or "underground" fraternities and sororities, where some of the same behaviors have occurred.

"What happened at Penn State can happen anywhere, and we need to make sure it doesn't happen here," said Maureen Rush, Penn's vice president for public safety.

A grand jury investigation into Piazza's death -- he suffered a non-recoverable brain injury, collapsed lung, and ruptured spleen -- continues, and Penn State has permanently banned Beta Theta Pi, citing forced drinking, hazing, and other illegal activity. Penn State declared a moratorium on serving alcohol at Greek socials for the rest of the semester and issued new rules for its Greek organizations, including reducing the allowed number and size of parties and rolling back recruitment to the second semester of freshman year.

Last week, Penn State suspended a second fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, for two years after it violated rules regarding alcohol use on the one weekend the university decided to allow it on April 1.

It's not the first time that Penn State has run into trouble with its frats. Just two years ago, Penn State suspended Kappa Delta Rho over allegations that members posted pictures of nude and partially nude women on private Facebook pages. The student member who reported the infractions subsequently filed a lawsuit alleging hazing.

Penn State president Eric Barron said the university would continue to deal sternly with violators.

"I don't think there are any easy solutions," he said. "But I think we have people's attention. But I would have told you we had their attention two years ago and five years before that. This is a cultural thing across the United States and we have to figure out how to try to counter it."

College-age students often crave the sense of belonging that a fraternity or sorority brings and view any type of initiation -- even illegal hazing -- as a tradition or rite of passage, said Norm Pollard, dean of students at Alfred University in New York and a board member of

But when hazing is mixed with alcohol, what seemed harmless can quickly turn deadly, he said. Some schools have tried to remedy the problem by moving fraternity houses on campus, delaying recruitment, or employing a graduate student to live in the houses.

And some schools, including Alfred, have done away with Greek life. Penn State considered that option but decided against it because of the positive aspects of fraternities and sororities, including philanthropy and community service.

Officials also were concerned that a blanket prohibition would breed an underground system posing more problems.

And even universities with relatively small Greek systems have had problems with hazing and high-risk drinking. Temple University, where only 5 percent of students belong, is an example.

"We are concerned about high-risk drinking regardless of the student community, whether it's Greek, athletic, or other," said Stephanie Ives, dean of students. "Of all the schools I've been to, every school has had a laser focus on this issue and frustration over the lack of impact that prevention programs seem to have."

At Lehigh, not all of the problem is connected to Greek life, but 30 to 40 percent of the student body belong to fraternities and sororities, and a university-maintained blog shows that excessive drinking and hazing has occurred.

Sigma Chi is the most recent fraternity to face sanctions for conduct on both April 1 and April 9.

"On both occasions guests of the chapter consumed significant amounts of alcohol distributed by Sigma Chi Fraternity," the blog reads.

That led to the student's fall on the stairs.

Two sororities and a fraternity also have been sanctioned for hazing this semester, said Katherine Lavinder, interim dean of students. Two fraternities have been removed from campus since 2014 for violating standards, she said.

Still, she said, dangerous drinking is a campus-wide problem.

"It is rarely attendance at a single social event that drives incidents related to excessive drinking," Lavinder said. "Excessive, or risky drinking, can and has occurred on and off campus, and isn't necessarily tied to specific groups."

Lehigh added police officers to patrol and crack down on alcohol violators and other lawbreakers. A group of student leaders plan to meet next week to brainstorm solutions, too.

"If we continue on this self-destructive path, we will be another grieving community on this list," they wrote in an email to all students. "We need to collaborate with the university in creating a trusting relationship where we as students take responsibility for our safety."