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Musings: Penn State, binge drinking, and university culture

By Jane Hagl & Lauren AguirreMay 15, 2017

Penn State Old Main
Wide view of Old Main at The Pennsylvania State University Getty Images

J: Nineteen-year-old Timothy Piazza died after going through a fraternity hazing at Penn State. Eighteen frat brothers have been criminally charged for their part in his death. Eight are being charged with aggravated felony. Piazza died after drink a large quantity of alcohol, fell down a flight of stairs face first, and then was left on the couch for several hours. Piazza fell down the stairs a second time and was found the next morning. Frat brothers waited 40 minutes before calling the police.

L: And now, the family is planning to sue the school, the fraternity itself and the frat members. What’s interesting is this incident is only getting so much coverage now, when the actual event occurred back in February. The reason everyone is talking about it more recently is because Piazza’s family appeared on a talk show to keep the school and fraternity accountable.

J: I think fraternity-related deaths, rapes, and other incidents that happen become a growing concern. Most of the time, students just get a slap on the wrist and it goes away. But now 18 students are being charged and it doesn’t help that it was at Penn State, which just had a significant scandal with Sandusky. 

L: I wouldn’t be surprised if their applications were down for the next couple years. But now I’m wondering if this is an administrative, culture and discipline issue or if the school is just so big that it’s difficult to manage that many students. Still, there definitely seems to be pretty significant issues and they should definitely be addressed beyond a press statement.

Most schools handle drinking, drugs, and sexual assaults as a  university issue rather than a felony or a misdemeanor. I’m surprised anyone got charged in the Penn case.

J: This goes beyond Penn State and Penn isn’t that big of university compared to other schools. There are many cases where hazing or partying gets out of control and a student dies.There’s been over 40 recorded deaths in the last 10 years, which doesn’t seem like a big number. But when you consider the fact students are dying from drinking, it’s kind of a big deal.

L: There’s definitely a culture of binge drinking on many, many college campuses. The attitude basically is that if you’re not drunk enough to throw up, it’s not a real party. This might be just a big part of American culture — because I know of plenty of adults who treat alcohol consumption the same way. But it could also be the fact that it’s still illegal for anyone under 21 to drink and typically, college-aged students don’t turn that age until their junior or senior year. So because it’s illegal, students feel like when they do drink, they have to really get the most out of it. And that is a bit of a dangerous attitude. But I haven’t even touched on problems with hazing yet.

J: The sudden lack of adult supervision and then the whole binge drinking culture thing play into it. It is also the peer pressure that goes with drinking. And drugs usually go along with the drinking. Most students know if you do get trouble there isn’t going to be a severe punishment. Most schools handle drinking, drugs, and sexual assaults as a  university issue rather than a felony or a misdemeanor. I’m surprised anyone got charged in the Penn case.

L: Most universities have their own police force that handles these issues. So you’re right, it doesn’t often go beyond whatever discipline the school chooses to use. And unless someone else takes action outside of the school’s jurisdiction, it stays that way. I think the family’s strong involvement with the case may have affected the outcome in terms of the charges. What I find interesting is students are consistently expelled for plagiarism, but often with cases of sexual assault and hazing, the most students get is a suspension or some other equivalent punishment.

J: That’s the boys will boys mentality and it’s a case of privilege. College students tend to be considered the brightest and best, for some reason, so there’s the perceived notion that out of control behavior is just a way to blow steam. Which is ridiculous. I don’t really think the family's involvement is the reason they’re being charged. There have been several cases where a family wanted answers and they were brushed aside. There is pretty damning video evidence where severe negligence was shown and refusing to render aid. This is a cultural issue and the fact universities treat cases like this as PR problems rather than actual cases are at the center of the problem.