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Official: Penn State had no reason to suspect problems at frat tied to student death

Pennsylvania State University had no reason to suspect that the fraternity linked to the death of New Jersey student Tim Piazza was engaging in dangerous hazing and underage drinking, said the university’s vice president for student affairs.

Pennsylvania State University had no reason to suspect that the fraternity now linked to the death of New Jersey student Tim Piazza was engaging in dangerous hazing and underage drinking, said the university's vice president for student affairs.

In fact Beta Theta Pi was among Penn State's best, according to the official, Damon Sims. It had twice been named chapter of the year since 2010 — and was on the path again this year to be recognized as one of three "chapters of excellence."

"It was the finest fraternity house I've ever been in," Sims said. "By all outward appearances, all the measurements we would have used, we would have judged them to be exemplary. And despite all of that, the very worst outcome occurred there, and it occurred because of the gross misuse of alcohol and hazing."

Piazza, 19, died in early February after falling down stairs during pledge night, and fraternity brothers didn't call for help until the next morning, nearly 12 hours later.

The precipitous turn illustrates the problem that universities face policing fraternities, which are private associations overseen by alumni boards and often located off campus.

Beta Theta Pi had a live-in adult adviser, Tim Bream, 56, who also serves as Penn State's assistant athletic director and head trainer for the football team. Bream, Sims said, was in line to be named fraternity adviser of the year.

Instead, he has drawn the ire of Jim and Evelyn Piazza, Tim Piazza's parents, who said they were told by police that Bream was at the home the night of the pledge event. Penn State officials have said they were unaware that Bream was living at the frat house.

A criminal investigation into Beta Theta Pi is nearing completion. Sims said the university was waiting for its outcome before taking any disciplinary action against students who were involved.

Sims said the university alone cannot stop underage drinking and hazing. Alumni groups that oversee fraternities and the students themselves must be part of the solution, he said.

"We have invested enormous time and energy and capital in trying to mitigate these problems," Sims said, citing alcohol screening and intervention, and aggressive discipline for off-campus infractions. "It is simply a gross misunderstanding of reality for anyone to think that Penn State or, frankly, most other universities have ignored these issues. We absolutely have not ignored them, and yet we would admit we have not solved them."

The Piazzas have been critical of the university as failing to take substantial action on the fraternity system, despite having formed a task force in 2015 after another fraternity incident.

It wasn't until after Piazza died that the university issued a moratorium on alcohol at fraternities for the rest of the semester, rolled back recruitment to second-semester freshman year, reduced the number of allowable parties, and increased monitoring.

In announcing the new rules, Penn State released startling statistics: members of fraternities and sororities are four times as likely to be heavy drinkers as the general student population. Sorority women, the university said, are 50 percent more likely than other females to be sexually assaulted, and fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than non-fraternity men.

The university has begun unannounced spot checks of Greek organizations to make sure they are following the rules, Sims said. Spot checkers are granted access to the public areas of the chapter houses, Sims said. The university is preparing to take action against those where violations have been uncovered, he said.

The task force, Sims said, was large and included students, Greek life leaders, alumni, State College borough officials, and residents who live near the fraternities. The group met 26 times for more than 50 hours but could not agree on substantive issues, he said. Some members supported the status quo, while others wanted the university to take complete control of the system, Sims said.

Others have advocated shutting down fraternities, but Sims said he worries that if the university were to do that, underground groups would materialize, as they have at some other colleges, and the university would have even less ability to influence behavior.

About 18 percent of undergraduates participate in Penn State's 82 fraternities and sororities.

The task force did decide that there should be a report card on Greek organizations, comparing them in areas such as service hours, philanthropy, disciplinary infractions, and nuisance violations.

"The reality is, had we created the report card," Sims said, "at the top of the report card would have been Beta Theta Pi."