Penn State Fraternity Hazing & Binge Drinking
Was it murder, or a tragic accident?
A judge and grand jury have to determine the answer to this question after 19-year-old college student Timothy Piazza died in February 2017 following a night of binge drinking as part of a ritual in a Penn State fraternity hazing. Binge drinking at the Beta Theta Pi frat house involved a ritual called “the gauntlet,” in which Piazza and other fraternity pledges had to guzzle large amounts of alcohol — wine, vodka and beer — at a series of stations.
Penn State Fraternity Hazing & Binge Drinking: College Rituals That Turned Deadly
While all the pledges at the Beta Theta Pi frat house got drunk, Piazza’s drunkenness caused him to stumble and fall several times — and he ultimately tumbled down a long flight of stairs to the basement, hitting his head. After falling, Piazza reportedly began to vomit and twitch, and then become unconscious. Perhaps in an attempt to revive him, the fraternity members poured water on Piazza and slapped his face. Then they put a backpack full of books on his back to prevent him from rolling over — presumably to prevent him from choking on his own vomit.
When another pledge told them that Piazza had hit his head at least once and might have a concussion requiring medical attention, the others patronized him, telling him that he was “overreacting” and being “over dramatic.” They left Piazza lying there for 12 hours. During those hours, members of the group used their phones to Google such things as “true or false, a person with a serious head injury or concussion should be kept awake,” and “cold extremities in drunk person.”
The fraternity members finally called for help the next morning, after alcohol and other evidence had been cleared away or covered up. Once Piazza was rushed to the hospital via ambulance, it turned out he had suffered a fractured skull and a lacerated spleen with extensive internal bleeding.
When Alcohol Becomes a Lethal Weapon
All 18 members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity have been charged with numerous counts of alcohol-related and other offenses, and eight members also have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Piazza’s death. They will go to court in June 2017. According to CNN, a forensic pathologist calculated that Piazza’s blood-alcohol concentration had been between 0.26% and 0.36% at one point during the night, which would be “life-threatening” and render him “stuporous.”
Piazza’s cause of death was ruled as traumatic brain injury resulting from several falls, but the binge drinking was a factor, as it led to Piazza being inebriated to the point of being unable to stand or walk properly.
NPR reported that the grand jury has said that the fraternity “cultivated such a permissive atmosphere regarding excessive alcohol consumption that Piazza’s death was not simply an unfortunate accident, but was the direct result of encouraged reckless conduct … or a reckless indifference to the possible consequences of such conduct.”
Video footage from the frat house shows Piazza suffering the obvious effects of his falls and of consuming large amounts of alcohol.
Binge Drinking Defined
Other pledges who were present at the Penn State fraternity hazing that led to Piazza’s death reported that the aim of “the gauntlet” drinking ritual was to get the pledges drunk in a very short amount of time. The Beta Theta Pi pledges reported consuming four or five alcoholic drinks in a two-minute period.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines binge drinking as a pattern of high alcohol consumption occurring in a very short amount of time that brings a person’s blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 or above. For men, this typically happens if they consume five or more drinks in two hours or less. For women, this typically happens when they consume four or more drinks in that timeframe.
The Piazza case is just one example among many where binge drinking on college campuses has led to tragic consequences.
Effects of Binge Drinking
Binge drinking among college students extends beyond fraternities and sororities, and can lead to many negative effects. What are the effects of excessive alcohol consumption?
Many drinkers, particularly those who don’t normally drink much alcohol, can end up at an event where they binge drink and experience severe effects. This can lead to impaired judgment, risky behavior, illness, dangerous accidents and death. Some binge drinkers engage in unprotected sex, which can result in a sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy. Some fall unconscious after too many drinks and get raped. Others get involved in car accidents, stumble into a pool and drown or injure themselves through other falls or burns. Alcohol changes behavior, and many drinkers become volatile, leading to fights or other violence.
One of the greatest risks of binge drinking, of course, is alcohol poisoning, which can be life-threatening.
The CDC reports that while binge drinking is more common among young adults aged 18-34, it is also prevalent among adults aged 65 years and older, who reportedly binge drink five to six times a month. And, although college students commonly binge drink, this pattern likely continues after graduation, since 70% of binge drinking episodes involve adults aged 26 years and older.
Alcohol is a poison. It’s that simple. Drink moderate amounts of this poison, and its effect might be tipsiness or drunkenness. Drink excessive amounts, and you run into problems. We shouldn’t need any more sad stories about binge drinking incidents and deaths to drive this fact home.
Treatment for alcohol use disorders is available and effective. If you or someone you know engages in patterns of binge drinking or excessive drinking, seek professional help. Lives are turned around every day in treatment. Yours can be too.
Penn State: Alcoholic Fraternity Hazing Destroys Dozens of Lives in One Night. Narcanon Blog, May 2017. http://www.narconon.org/blog/penn-state-alcoholic-fraternity-hazing-destroys-dozens-of-lives-in-one-night.html
Manslaughter charges in Penn State fraternity pledge’s death. CNN, May 2017.
Parents: ‘Criminal’ inaction by Penn State, frat members led to son’s death. Sara Ganim, Chris Welch. CNN, May 2017.
Penn State teen killed in frat hazing was treated like ‘roadkill and a rag doll,’ parents say. Cleve R. Wootson Jr, Susan Svrluga. The Washington Post, May 2017.
19 and Coming Into His Own, Until a Fatal Night of Hazing. Sarah Maslin Nir. The New York Times, May 2017.
Penn State Student’s Hazing Death Was No Accident, Grand Jury Says. Bill Chappell. NPR, Southern California Public Radio, May 2017.
Fact Sheets – Binge Drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), October 2015.