The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the rest of the country were shaken when a 19-year-old engineering student at Penn State University died during an alcohol-fueled fraternity initiation rite in February 2017. Timothy Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey, died of head and spleen injuries suffered while drunkenly falling multiple times, including twice down a flight of stairs, during hazing activities at the fraternity house. More than 20 of Piazza’s fraternity brothers were arrested and prosecutors repeatedly tried to file felony charges against the fraternity members for encouraging Piazza and serving him 18 drinks within 82 minutes, but all felony charges, including manslaughter, were eventually withdrawn. Three fraternity members later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.
In response to this horrific tragedy, Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, who also represents Centre County (which encompasses State College), urged Governor Tom Wolf to act swiftly and send a message to students and families that hazing activities throughout college fraternities, sororities, and other school organizations would not be taken lightly. Corman sponsored a bill which expanded the definition of hazing and gave prosecutors, for the first time in Pennsylvania, the flexibility to tie stricter penalties based on the gravity of the hazing offense.
Four weeks ago, Governor Wolf signed the bill titled the “Timothy Piazza Anti-Hazing Law” which was previously approved by the Pennsylvania Senate by a vote of 49-0. This new law defines hazing as a summary offense, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $300 fine if found guilty. To determine guilt, a jury or judge would decide if a person “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly” caused or coerced someone to consume foods, liquids, drugs or other substances that caused emotional or physical harm; or to endure physical or mental brutality, such as whipping, sleep deprivation or social exclusion that causes “extreme embarrassment.” The new law includes the language “forced” physical activity as it relates to initiation or admission into, affiliation with, or continued membership in an organization, which negates significant disputes under the old law of the definition of “forced” and whether it covered initiation-based drinking events particularly in college fraternities and sororities.
The law also outlines new sentencing tiers when a victim suffers bodily injury or death as a result of the hazing activity. Hazing that injures a person is now considered a misdemeanor that carries a punishment up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. A hazing incident that results in severe injury or death is a felony that carries a punishment up to seven years in jail and a $15,000 fine. Additionally, the law includes a “safe harbor” provision that would save those who seek help for someone involved in a hazing incident from being prosecuted. This stemmed from the information obtained in Piazza’s case indicating that his fraternity members waited hours after finding Piazza unconscious before calling 911.
Another important provision of the new hazing law makes it a requirement for every school district, college, and university in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to adopt and post anti-hazing policies and enforce such policies by imposing fines, withholding diplomas or transcripts, and revoking recognition of social groups. Schools across the state now have to keep track of hazing violations for seven years, including online reports showing the date, location, and general description of any hazing incidents.
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